I don’t really know whether the collaborations between Brecht and Weill deserve to be called operas but some of them at least are sung by opera singers and produced in opera houses so I think they are legitimately within the ambit of this blog. Arguably the best known of them all is Die Dreigroschenoper which premiered in Berlin in 1931. I’ve seen it a couple of times in English translation and, like most people I guess, I’m familiar with the music (in both English and German) through recordings by people like Lotte Lenya, Ute Lemper and Robyn Archer. With that background I was very interested to take a look at the 1931 film of the work directed by GW Pabst.
To understand the film it’s necessary to look at some of the history of how it came about (a subject well treated in a documentary on the DVD). The producers bought the work, which had been a huge hit on stage, on the basis that Brecht would adapt the stage work for film. However Brecht had been stung by criticism from the Marxist left that the play was too cynical and essentially trivial; in other words “not Marxist enough”. He had already written Dreigroschenroman which took the same characters but fairly radically changed the plot to make it more of a critique of finance capital and he did the same with the film treatment. Pabst rejected it and engaged Béla Balázs to produce a version closer to the stage play and more suitable for film. Ironically, what emerged takes many of Brecht’s revisionist ideas and is a much more Marxist and less anarchic work than the stage play. In the process about half of Weill’s music was dropped and quite a bit of the rest repurposed including, notoriously, giving Pirate Jenny’s song to Jenny thus creating expectations that all subsequent stage versions have struggled with. Almost all the sexually explicit lyrics are gone, presumably to avoid censorship problems.
So what’s the film like? It really shows its roots in the silent Expressionist films of the German cinema of the 1920s. The visual language is similar and the director is absolutely not afraid of silence or just low level background noise. This gives it a really spooky and grim feel. The acting is quite stylised and the singing style is rather different from what we have come to think of as the Berlin cabaret style; it’s generally thinner toned and much less dramatic. This is less true of Lotte Lenya, who sings Jenny, or Ernst Busch, who sings the Street Singer, but it’s still a long way from Ute Lemper. The crowd scenes could almost be out of Metropolis. It’s pretty effective. The main plot change is to bring in the idea of Polly buying a bank rather than continuing Macheath’s burglary business (straight out of Dreigroschenroman) and ending up with Tiger Brown buying a seat on the board with Macheath’s bail money rather than the great big “reprieve chorus” of the stage version. This is where it becomes a more pointed social critique than the original. In effect we are being asked to believe in a conspiracy between finance capital, organised crime and the Metropolitan Police (hence the title of this post). This probably seemed pretty broad satire to Pabst and his screenwriters. Now it seems that all that is missing is News International.
The production for DVD is quite lavish. The picture has been digitally restored from an archive print and looks very good indeed for a Black and White movie of the era. It’s presented at rather odd aspect ratio of 1.19:1 which is presumably authentic but not one I’ve seen before.The sound is slightly tinny mono as might be expected but this isn’t Wagner so one quickly adjusts to it. The extras are not far short of amazing. The first disk contains the German movie and the documentary mentioned above. The second disk has the differently cast French language version, a multimedia presentation on the differences between the two versions and production photos and sketches.