"You gents who to a virtuous life would lead us, and turn us from all wrongdoing and sin...first of all see to it that you feed us, then start your preaching. That's where to begin..."
Bertolt Brecht was a hard-nosed socialist, an unpleasant and selfish gent who often took others' ideas and transformed them into something uniquely forceful and original. He believed that the proletariat struggle against the bourgeoisie was unending. When he and the composer Kurt Weill, equally original and talented in Weimar Germany, but who was not nearly so politically rigid or so personally obnoxious, collaborated on Die Dreigoschenoper in 1928, it probably flabbergasted them both to have a huge popular success on their hands. Much of the reason is Weill's clever, pungent score, but a lot of the credit goes to Brecht's utter cynicism about how the privileged behave to the workers. Says one of Threepenny's characters, "The rich of this world have no qualms about causing misery but can't stand the sight of it." The movie G. W. Pabst made from the theater production eliminates great junks of Weill's music. One would think this would be a terrible mistake. What we have, however, is a movie of social criticism that is so cynical with such self-serving characters that the songs Pabst kept seem to lift an already excellent film into greatness.
We're seeing the story of Mackie Messer (Rudolf Forster), a man as charming as a snake. He's a murderer, a rapist, an arsonist, a thief...all tools of his trade. Mackie in his tight suit, grey bowler hat and with his ivory cigar holder preys on others. We learn all about Mackie when a street singer (Ernst Busch) entertains the crowd with stories of his crimes. When Mackie "marries" Polly Peachum (Carola Neher), however, he encounters the wrath of Mr. Peachum (Fritz Rasp), London's king of the beggars. Soon Mackie's great pal, Tiger Brown (Reinhold Schunzel), London's chief of police, cannot protect Mackie when Peachum threatens to unleash all his beggars during Queen Victoria's coronation celebrations. Eventually, Mackie is betrayed and cast into jail, soon to be hanged. But the Threepenny Opera insists on a happy ending, just as in the movies. Polly has shown herself to be a great captain of thieves while Mackie was jailed. Tiger Brown, while dismissed as police chief has nonetheless rescued a great deal of money. Mr. Peachum's wily ways come into play. And Mackie sees no great issues that threats and money can't solve. They all agree that instead of robbing others illegally, why not start a bank so they can rob everyone legally? And with this happy end, we all are satisfied.
Pabst has created a wonderful visual sense of the time and place in Victorian Soho. There's a lot of shadowy lighting that underscores the rotten society that Brecht and Weill are serving us with such style. The songs that were kept in the movie catch us up in amused cynicism ("Mack the Knife"), the cynicism for naive love ("The Wedding Song for Poor People"), the cynicism of realistic love ("Polly's Song"), the rousing cynicism of the military ("Cannon Song") and, powerfully, the cynicism of resentment ("Pirate Jenny"). Lotte Lenya, Weill's wife, who plays the maid in Mackie's favorite brothel and has been one of Mackie's many conquests, sings this with such intensity and, at the end, cheerfulness, it will curl your toes. The warehouse where Mackie "marries" Polly has been made into a mansion of luxury and love that's as phony as lipstick on a pig. The bankers and police officers are the epitome of rectitude and are as hypocritical as many a mortgage lender's handshake. Barely underneath this surface of mutual use bubbles the corruption, as Weill and Brecht would have it, of the rich, the powerful and the complacent. It doesn't take much to remember the paintings of George Grosz, with all those fat, greasy-lipped bankers, wearing nothing but underwear and top hats, lolling in the arms of sweating, fat prostitutes. The Marc Blitzstein translation of The Threepenny Opera (1954 New York Cast) (Blitzstein Adaptation) that became a huge hit on Broadway in 1954 may have softened the edges a bit of Brecht's class war, but Weill's music and Brecht's lyrics (as translated by Blitzstein) still give one of the best ideas of how effective the score and the stage production continue to be.
Pabst's movie of The Threepenny Opera, in my opinion, rates the over-used term of being a classic. I'd also recommend getting the wonderful Technicolor film version of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, with Lawrence Olivier playing MacHeath. It was John Gay, after all, who started all this.
Let's let Brecht and Weill have the last words...
"How does a man survive? By daily cheating, mistreating, beating others, spitting in their face. Only the man survives who's able to forget that he's a member of the human race."