Ladies and gentlemen, you will now hear the strange and comical history of how an eighteenth-century English play went through diverse transformations and finally became a hit movie banned by the Nazis . . .
The initial impetus came from Jonathan Swift, provocateur and author of Gulliver’s Travels, who suggested to John Gay that he should write a “Newgate pastoral.” (Newgate was London’s main prison at the time.) Gay rose to the challenge. He based his protagonist Peachum on the notorious real-life criminal Jonathan Wild, stirred in his cynicism about government and police corruption, and framed the entire entertainment as a gutter parody of the fashions for Handel and Italian opera. The Beggar’s Opera was first staged in London in 1728, and it was such a success that William Hogarth was still painting scenes from the show a year later. The authorities were disturbed and threatened by its popularity and refused a performance license to its sequel, Polly. But “ballad opera” was established overnight as a favorite with English audiences.
There was a celebrated revival of The Beggar’s Opera in London in the 1920s, directed by the long-forgotten Nigel Playfair, and its reputation reached the ears of Elisabeth Hauptmann in Berlin, who ordered a copy of the text and set about translating it into German. Hauptmann was in love with the enfant terrible playwright Bertolt Brecht, who had moved from Munich to Berlin toward the end of 1924, notionally to take up a post as “Dramaturg” at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater, and was working as his secretary while waiting for Brecht to divorce his first wife. Brecht’s voluminous reading at the time certainly included Marx, but he was not yet the doctrinaire Marxist who went on to write didactic political plays, appear as a “friendly witness” at the HUAC hearings in Washington, and found the Berliner Ensemble in Communist East Berlin; he was more like the Fassbinder of his day, scandalizing the bourgeoisie with his plays and productions, picking fights in the press, and generating as much personal publicity as possible. Brecht’s hostile biographer John Fuegi, in 1994’s Brecht & Co. (published in the UK as The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht), speculates that Hauptmann loved Gay’s play because she identified herself with the smart and feisty Polly Peachum and Brecht with the womanizing Macheath. He also suggests that Brecht had no real interest in the Beggar’s Opera translation until the opportunity to make some money from it arrived out of the blue in April 1928.
Brecht had developed the mother of all writer’s blocks around 1925 (he was twenty-seven at the time) and never fully recovered from it. (And, despite the fact that nearly all of his output was based on the work of other writers, or picked up from the labors of his successive assistants, he never knowingly met a deadline in his life.) In April 1928 he was supposed to be working on a political play for Erwin Piscator when he was approached by Ernst Josef Aufricht, a newcomer in Berlin, who had just leased the plush Theater am Schiffbauerdamm and was looking for a striking production to inaugurate his tenancy. Brecht remembered Hauptmann’s translation-in-progress in the nick of time, and Aufricht loved the Beggar’s Opera scenes he showed him. Aufricht wanted to open the theater on August 31, his birthday, and so the book, the music, and the production as a whole had to be put together very quickly.
The original Theater am Schiffbauerdamm program brochure from 1928 (which famously omitted Lotte Lenya’s name in error) did acknowledge the production’s disparate roots. John Gay’s source text is properly credited, and the interpolation of lyrics from Rudyard Kipling and François Villon is admitted—although Brecht later got into trouble for failing to credit the existing German translation of the Villon poems he’d used. Elisabeth Hauptmann is credited as the translator, Brecht himself with “adapting” the text (Bearbeitung literally means “working on”). By the time that Seymour Nebenzal’s Nero Film was producing the film version two years later, all of these names except Brecht’s had disappeared.
Brecht had met the Jewish composer Kurt Weill (and his gentile wife Lotte Lenya) some years earlier, and Weill had first set some of Brecht’s lyrics in May 1927 for the song cycle Mahagonny, written for the prestigious Festival of German Music, which took place that year in Baden-Baden. Armed with Aufricht’s offer of up-front cash for what was then still called The Beggar’s Opera, Brecht presented Weill with a nonnegotiable deal for writing an original score: Weill would get 25 percent of any royalties, with 12.5 percent going to Hauptmann for the translation, and the balance of 62.5 percent going to Brecht himself. If Weill turned down this “generous” offer, Brecht suggested, then Aufricht would simply use the score written by John Christopher Pepusch for Gay’s original play. Weill signed reluctantly.
The urgency of knocking the concept into performable shape led the five key personnel—Brecht, Hauptmann, Weill and Lenya, plus Erich Engel, who was to direct the production—to retreat to a village in the south of France to work in seclusion. But Brecht abandoned the others in July to look in on productions of his work in Berlin and elsewhere, and didn’t return to the project until eleven days before the opening. By then Hauptmann had recycled lyrics from earlier Brecht productions into the show—including the “Cannon Song,” her translation from Kipling, first used in the play Man Is Man, which, in Weill’s new setting, gave the production its first showstopper. Friends and admirers chipped in ideas; the veteran Jewish playwright Lion Feuchtwanger came up with the German title Die Dreigroschenoper. Brecht himself did contribute last-minute lyrics for the opening “Moritat,” the street singer’s chronicle of unsolved murders associated with Macheath, much later covered by Bobby Darin as “Mack the Knife.”
The show was a sensational hit from its opening night; within a year there had been forty-two hundred performances in theaters all across Europe. (But a New York production in 1933 flopped; it didn’t work on Broadway until it was revived in 1954.) Weill’s score was obviously a major factor in this success, with its inspired magpie blend of elements from American jazz, syncopated dance music, baroque motifs, and artful discords, and there had already been forty cover versions published on disc by the time that members of the original cast recorded thirteen of the stage songs in December 1930. Lenya’s piquant memoir of the opening night notes: “In the streets no other tunes were whistled. A Dreigroschen bar opened, where no other music was played.” Truth to tell, the fortuitous match of Gay’s eighteenth-century satire with the spirit of the Roaring Twenties—and with the growing economic crisis, joblessness, and poverty on the streets outside—produced something bigger and more resonant than the sum of its parts. Brecht, though, characteristically claimed most of the credit for himself. Suddenly immensely rich, he became both more arrogant and more antibourgeois than he’d been in his years of struggle.
The unprecedented success of the stage show made a film version more or less inevitable. Nebenzal’s company, Nero, a comparative stripling alongside the giants Ufa, Emelka, and Terra-Film, but noted for such “daring” productions as William (then Wilhelm) Dieterle’s Sex in Chains (1928) and G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), shelled out RM 40,000 for the film rights on May 21, 1930. The contract specified that Brecht and Weill would retain creative control of the book and score, respectively, and Brecht was paid an additional RM 14,000 to write the screenplay—which he, predictably, failed to do, despite once again retreating to the village in the south of France. When Pabst visited him there in June 1930 to discuss the script, he brought along the left-wing writer Léo Lania, who had worked with Brecht on a staging of The Good Soldier Schwejk for Erwin Piscator. But there was no meeting of the minds. On August 3 Nero met Brecht’s demand for a new contract in which he, Lania, and two other collaborators would merely supply a revised outline for the film and then have a say in approving the final screenplay.
Executives at Nero saw this as a diplomatic solution to the problem—until they saw the new outline, which was considerably more politically provocative than the original play. Brecht, they found, had not only tried to impose various “cinematic” ideas on the stage play but had also rethought much of the plot. Macheath was now a criminal mastermind with 120 armed brigands at his command, the London slums were undergoing a massive cosmetic makeover in preparation for the impending coronation of the new queen, and Peachum was motivated to attack Macheath as much by threats to his own financial interests as by fury at the sudden seduction of his daughter. The most crucial change was a completely new ending. Where the original play had Macheath saved from the gallows by a royal pardon (which at the same time elevated him to the nobility), the new outline climaxed with the unholy alliance of Macheath, the disgraced chief of police, and Peachum as “respectable” directors of a bank. This new sting in the tail was designed to hit the bourgeois audience where it hurt most—in their wallets—by suggesting that their hard-earned money was supporting crooks and charlatans.
Matters were further complicated by the fact that Nero had by then sold the rights on to Tobis-Klangfilm (which had a virtual monopoly in Europe on sound recording and reproduction technology) and the German subsidiary of Warner Brothers, to recoup its huge outlay. Nero had only ever wanted to film a version of the stage hit, and that was undoubtedly what they had pitched to Tobis-Klangfilm and Warner Brothers. Faced with the new outline, the company tried to buy Brecht off, asking him to give up his right to creative control in exchange for his full agreed fee. Brecht refused, and he and Weill took the matter to court as soon as they heard that the film was in production. Pabst began shooting in the E.F.A.-Atelier studio in Berlin on September 19, working from a new script cowritten by Lania, Ladislaus Vajda, and the Hungarian Marxist Béla Balázs. The budget was set at RM 800,000, nearly three times the cost of a typical German production that year, and shooting went on until November 15. Pabst’s obvious aim was to give the movie audience an improved and intensified version of what the theater audience had so much enjoyed. When Balázs was criticized by Brecht’s friends for working on the screenplay, he retorted that he’d done so precisely to preserve as much as possible of the original play’s left-wing radicalism.
Brecht’s and Weill’s lawsuits were heard over four days (October 17–20), and judgment was handed down on November 4. Brecht lost, the court ruling that he had himself broken his contract with Nero by substantially revising the original play. Weill won, his contractual right to control the film’s music validated, and Nero was forced to delete some additional music it had planned to add.
Brecht threatened to appeal the court ruling but reached an out-of-court settlement with Nero on December 19. He went on to publish a lengthy essay titled “The Threepenny Lawsuit,” in which he claimed that he had undertaken the whole legal process as a “social experiment” to demonstrate the worthlessness of a creator’s rights in a capitalist society—an ironic position for a writer known for wholesale plagiarism. (His revised outline was eventually published in 1960, four years after his death; its original title, Die Beule, translates literally as “The Boil,” but it has been translated into English as The Bruise to reflect a key motif that he added to the play.) The German version of the film premiered at the Atrium Cinema in Berlin on February 19, 1931. To the surprise of some, it turned out that Pabst and his writers had incorporated many of the new ideas from the revised outline, including much of the completely new ending, but nobody seems sure whether Brecht himself ever saw the film. Two and a half years later, on August 10, 1933, the newly elected Nazi Party banned the film.
Ladies and gentlemen, you have heard the long and tortuous history of the project. But what of the actual film?
The first thing to say is that, like many early European talkies, it was shot in different languages. The Warner Brothers involvement was supposed to generate an English-language version alongside the German and French, but this plan was abandoned in the melee of lawsuits and payoffs. Pabst did make English-language versions of his subsequent spectacles The Mistress of Atlantis (1932) and Don Quixote (1933), and then made A Modern Hero for Warner Brothers in California in 1934. L’opéra de quat’sous, the French version of The Threepenny Opera, is a little shorter than the German version, partly because of some censorship trims but mostly because it’s played faster by the French cast, who encourage Pabst to make some of the narrative elisions faster too; the only significant visual difference is that the French version opens with a shot of dolls—representing the main characters—revolving on the barrel organ that accompanies “Moritat,” an image with no equivalent in the German version.
The French casting, on the other hand, changes everything. Albert Préjean plays Mackie as a conventionally charming boulevardier, with scarcely a hint of real menace, not so different from Adolphe Menjou. Similarly Odette Florelle (as Polly) and Margo Lion (as Jenny) are both far too sweet to be plausible as children of the gutter. Insofar as the French version has any “edge” at all, it comes from the casting of Gaston Modot (fresh from shooting L’âge d’or with Buñuel) as Peachum and the frisson of seeing the legendary Antonin Artaud, theorist of the theater of cruelty, in a cameo as Filch, the aspiring beggar who is costumed and assigned a pitch by Peachum.
Only two members of the German cast had appeared in the original Theater am Schiffbauerdamm production, Lenya and Ernst Busch. As Weill’s wife, Lenya was obviously part of the “package.” But her film Jenny is as irreplaceable as her stage Jenny reputedly was; it launched her on a bad-girl/chanteuse career that stretched all the way to Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love. Busch had played the small part of the prison warden onstage, and his indelible turn in the film as the narrator/street singer helped to establish him as the leading leftist actor of his generation; he went on to appear in Pabst’s Kameradschaft (1931) and played the lead in the Brecht–Slatan Dudow film Kuhle Wampe (1932).
The second thing to say is that Pabst has transformed the play without exactly betraying it. He has dropped many of the original songs and moved the two that proved most popular in the theater from act 1 to act 3; this is quite clearly his way of trying to reproduce and intensify the experience enjoyed by so many theatergoers. More than ten years older than Brecht and much more humane in his cynicism, not to mention actively interested in the new frontiers of psychoanalysis, Pabst sees The Threepenny Opera not as Brechtian agitprop but as a harsh social morality. He integrates characters and oneiric settings in a way that looks forward to Renoir’s Le crime de Monsieur Lange rather than back to the “new objectivity” of his own Joyless Street. For him, the docklands warehouse where Mackie and Polly marry is a double of the Turnbridge Street brothel that Mackie visits every Thursday, just as the police station and the bank are doubles. And all of these spaces and the puppets who inhabit them are united in their duplicity. The warehouse and the brothel are palaces of illusion, crammed with phony or stolen signs of luxury and plenty, in which sincere feelings are present but denied or thwarted. The police station and the bank are outwardly respectable but sterile, and home to the most hypocritical machinations. In its way, this schema is just as powerful a critique of Weimar Germany as anything that Brecht ever sensed in John Gay’s original. And Pabst’s celebration of the strength and intelligence of Polly, who runs the gang with an iron fist in Mackie’s absence and shifts it socially from the basement to the penthouse, could be his vindication of Elisabeth Hauptmann, who did most of the work and was rewarded with a 12.5 percent share of the grosses.
Tony Rayns is a London-based filmmaker and critic with a sepcial interest in East Asian cinema. He was awarded the 2004 Kawakita Prize for services to Japanese cinema. He edited the first English-language book on Fassbinder and provided the commentary track for Criterion's release of Fassbinder's Veronika Voss.