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The merits of The Threepenny Opera as a film have, in the past, been much overshadowed by the political and legal controversy surrounding the project. Even before the film's release, playwright Bertolt Brecht, who participated in the adaptation of his hugely successful theater production to the screen, sued the German production company (the actual financing for the film came from Warner Brothers in Hollywood). Brecht claimed that the film deleted important ideological elements from his original material, thereby violating his property rights as an artist. The irony of this lawsuit by the most overtly Marxist literary figure of his day in defense of property rights was lost neither on Brecht himself nor on the courts, and the suit was eventually dismissed, although composer Kurt Weill won his co-suit against the producers for changes in his score.
The Nazis' objections to the film had a far more drastic effect. Rankled by its socialist message and attacks on governmental authority (even though The Threepenny Opera is set in Victorian England, its relevance to the political and social climate in Germany at the time was hard to miss), the German censors (Hitler's “Propaganda Office”) desroyed the original negative and every print they could lay their hands on. The film's unavailability bolstered its legendary status: in 1948 a film critics' colloquium held in Brussels voted it one of the ten greatest films of all time. Finally, Thomas Brandon, a pioneer of art film distribution in the U.S., spent the better part of the Fifties scouring Europe for prints of the film in an effort to reconstruct it. With the aid of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, this seemingly impossible task was accomplished, and the restored version was released in 1960.
Brecht's play, Die Dreigroschenoper, is, of course, derived from John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), itself a sort of burlesque of Italian opera. Gay's populist satire on English jurisprudence and the Walpole administration was reworked by Brecht into a wide-ranging comic indictment of class structure and the institution of prosperity. But the same bourgeois society that Brecht sought to lampoon made his play a triumph; when it opened in Berlin in 1928 The Threepenny Opera was an immediate sensation, and its enormous popularity ever since is also testimony to the brilliance of Kurt Weill's music. It was undoubtedly the box office success of the stage production, more so than the originality and dramatic inventiveness of the play itself, which led to its screen adaptation, a paradoxical event in that it brought together two creative forces as diametrically opposed in their artistic approach as Brecht and G.W. Pabst, the film's director.
When he undertook the filming of The Threepenny Opera, in 1930, Pabst was generally regarded, along with Murnau and Lang, as one of the three masters of German Expressionist cinema, having won acclaim for such films as The Joyless Street, The Love of Jeanne Ney, Pandora's Box, and Diary of a Lost Girl. He left Germany in 1933, immediately after Hitler's rise to power, but his decision to return there and make films under the Third Reich badly damaged his reputation, and he might be nearly forgotten today, were it not for the enduring Louise Brooks cult.
But even the praise of Pabst by his contemporaries, focusing too narrowly on his skill at depicting venality and perversion, does not do justice to the scope of his talent. With his psychological acuity and visual mastery of the medium, Pabst was able, especially in his silent films, to free his images from a restricting servitude to narrative, making his knowing, dark contemplation more the subject of his films than the things contemplated.
Brecht, on the other hand, was a social satirist and a man of the theater. His work had grown increasingly radical in the years before he teamed up with Kurt Weill; their first collaborative effort, Mahagonny (1927), reflected his newly developed concepts of “Didactic Theater.” When they collaborated a second time, on The Threepenny Opera, one can imagine that what interested the two authors most in the original John Gay material was not so much its picaresque story and characters, nor even its keen observation and wry wit, but the possibility of modernizing and manipulating its elements into a vast social parable, through which their political and artistic theories could find expression.
The plot of the films varies somewhat from the play (some of these variations having been initiated and written by Brecht himself), but essentially retains the storyline that served both Brecht and Gay so well, involving the charismatic Macheath known as “Mack the Knife”—and the complications which arise when he weds Polly Peachum, the daughter of “London's Beggar King,” a sort of pimp for the destitute. The “happy ending” does not obscure the scathing cynicism of the moral that whores and hoodlums have a lot in common with policemen, bankers and other pillars of society, and that an adversary can sometimes make a good business partner—at the expense, of course, of the poor.
The credits of The Threepenny Opera are full of illustrious names: Brecht, Weill, Pabst; the great Lotte Lenya, who originated her role of “Jenny” on stage; Rudolf Forster and Carola Neher as Macheath and Polly; Pabst regulars Fritz Rasp and Valeska Gert as Peachum and his wife. However, one cannot overlook the contributions made by cameraman Fritz Arno Wagner and art director Andrei Andreiev, whose stylized depiction of the turn-of- the-century London underworld haunts one's memory of the film.
Although reviewers have sometimes criticized the director's “romanticizing” of Brecht's material, film historians have recognized The Threepenny Opera as one of the last great works of German cinema's richest period. They also recognize that Pabst's vision lends humanity and depth to the material, without diminishing Brecht's message or his mordant wit—the author's ideas of social reality are imbued with Pabst's characteristic darker shadings and emotions; his feelings of psychological reality.