16 September 2012 | chaos-rampant
You have to appreciate this is from a time when a battle was being fought over the soul of Germany from the streets to the screen. That was true when Brecht wrote the play, and even more so three years later in this film incarnation. On one side you had Pabst, socially-conscious, humanist, and on the opposite end Riefenstahl's visions of mystical , sensuous and heaven-defying purity (and all that prefigures).
And I write this from a country that experiences an eerily similar situation almost a century later, is ravaged by recession, well-to-do people of three years ago are now sleeping in benches, and that horror and despair has brought actual neo-Nazis in the parliament and racial hate in the streets. So, this hits unexpectedly close to home, and makes me lament that we don't have talents of Pabst's calibre.
Ingenious moments in this extremely cynical vision of a world ruled by money include a 'king of beggars' who runs a powerful beggar-union of fake beggars, and a crook who is sprung from prison only to discover he is president of a London bank.
Pabst plays free and loose with Brecht's text, drops several musical numbers, and makes at least two powerful additions of his own: his ire is aimed at both left and right, with the beggar-union clearly standing in for socialists (their slogans include "give to be given back") who exploit the despair of the people for petty gains, and goes on to show a public riot (only threatened in Brecht) that ends not in triumphant Soviet-revolution but failure and obscurity.
The guy (with his team of close collaborators) was a genius, just not necessarily in this field.
Individual scenes are superb, but the whole feels sluggish and protracted. Scenes open several moments before we need the information and end several moments later. And for a film like this, you need a Marx Bros - Dr. Strangelove madcap rhythm to keep the zap of ferocious energy from dissipating.
But you just need to look at the opening to see what these guys were capable of, what astounding visual language they had refined.
The sparsity works because they're not going for comedic effect yet. It could be the opening to any type of film, say a melodrama. We are introduced to our crook through a public show in the Italian manner, sung and pointing to illustrated panels of the action (our film), and go on to meet him as he courts and swiftly convinces a young girl to marriage. All of that happens in a matter of minutes, no more than four scenes tops. There is a minimum of dialogue. The courting - a dance of seduction - happens in a dance club, and is actually shown as other couples dancing. We don't hear what he says to her, only lips moving. We only find out later (maybe) when she sings about it.
Pabst was the master of allusive filmmaking in the late silent era. You just can't afford to miss his Diary of a Lost Girl.
These days, Eisenstein is the backbone of MTV. You can see Riefenstahl's mark all over the coverage of sports and public events. Expressionism has been made cute and pop. Unlike them, this mode of using a scene to portray unseen bits of narrative that would have been wholly ordinary if simply shown is still new and untapped.