Directed by G.W. Pabst
In German with optional English subtitles
With all of my beginning of the year filler pieces now out of the way and a flotilla of future mini-book and movie review posts now the only thing visible on the blogging horizon, I'm happy to embark upon the non-comment generating part of the year (i.e. the rest of 2013) with a few words dedicated to G.W. Pabst's eccentric early talkie and occasional musical The 3 Penny Opera. I sure know how to pick the crowd-pleasers, eh? Adapted from the 1928 Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill play of the same name that unexpectedly wowed Weimar theater-going audiences back in the day, the movie version of The 3 Penny Opera is a hugely entertaining audiovisual spectacle that zeros in on the criminal escapades of London dandy/thug/trollop fancier Mackie Messer (a/k/a Mack the Knife) as he, aided and abetted by his fetching young wife Polly Peachum and accompanied by Weill's cabaret soundtrack to his life, rises from being a common criminal to become a much more respectable sort of crook: the owner of a bank. In Pabst's comedic retelling of Brecht's anti-capitalist "opera," there are a number of deliberate provocations that prefigure the subversive anti-bourgeoisie satire of vintage Buñuel. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that the film has a satirical mean streak in that regard. A significant portion of the plot, for example, has to do with the ill will between Polly's parents and Mackie brought about by the latter's seduction of the Peachum family's tender young daughter. Yet when we first meet Jonathan Jeremias Peachum, self-proclaimed as "the poorest man in London" but known as the beggar king for holding a monopoly on the issuing of panhandling licenses for which he leeches 50% of the weekly take off of all his clients, he silences a complaint about his extortionate licensing fees from one man by pointing to a Gospel quote from Luke painted on his wall: "Give, and though shalt be given." Three mannequins in full dummy beggar attire and a number of prop crutches visually frame this mocking use of the biblical injunction. Later in the film, while attempting to rally an army of the poor and the pseudo-poor to interrupt a public ceremony involving the Queen, the beggar king brags about how he will manage to "wring a few pence out of your poverty" by playing on the pity of the "rich noblemen" and--by extension--the viewing public at large: "For I've shown that the rich of this world have no qualms about causing misery but can't bear the sight of it!" In spite of its message associating capitalism with criminality and widespread corruption at all levels of society, The 3 Penny Opera seems as dedicated to amusing its audience as provoking it. It does this through snicker-worthy lowlife humor (Polly: "In Winchester you seduced two sisters, both of them minors." Mackie: "They told me they were over 30." Polly: "Both of them together."), and it also does it through the narrator-like street singer who sings songs about the characters while they stand in the audience listening to him and also introduces scenes by addressing the moviegoing audience to boot: "Ladies and gentlemen," he begins in English at one point before breaking into German for what follows, "you've seen Mackie's bold and restless nature. I'll now show you how, through a loving wife's cleverness, things take a turn that even you wouldn't expect." The next scene, typical of all that's great about the film other than the cabaret music that I've barely even touched on, had me laughing out loud, and it's just too good to not share with you here. Polly: "Gentlemen of the board...one can rob a bank or one can..." Interrupting her, a burglar turned board member: "Use a bank to rob others!" Polly: "Tread the path of a respectable and law-abiding business...as my papa used to say to me. 'Polly,' he always said, 'Who'd be so stupid as to be a burglar these days when we've got laws?'" Genius.
Mackie (Rudolf Forster) and Polly (Carola Neher)
This post on The 3 Penny Opera is my first submission for this year's Caravana de recuerdos Film Festival and Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat's World Cinema Series 2013. As I said in my intro post the other day, I hope others will consider contributing their own movie reviews to both events. Until then, other great Pabst films I recommend include Diary of a Lost Girl [Tagebuch einer Verlorenen] and Pandora's Box [Die Büchse der Pandora], both from 1929.