The 3 Penny Opera


Director: G.W. Pabst
Year: 1931
Rating: 8.0
Country: Germany

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear.
And he shows them pearly white.
Just a jack knife has Macheath, dear
And he keeps it out of sight

From a song titled "Die Moritat von Mackier Messe" but now better known as Mack the Knife after Bobby Darin knocked it out of the park in 1959. It is the first song in this brilliantly directed film by G.W. Pabst of the Bertolt Brecht play "with songs" as he termed it. Brecht had actually taken a play by John Gay who wrote The Beggars Opera in 1728 and revised it for modern audiences and added his political views on capitalism. Though he kept Gay's location in London, Brecht clearly has Germany of the 1920's in mind. He brought on Kurt Weill to write the classic music for a few poems that Brecht took from Francois Villon and it was a huge success on the stage.

Pabst came on to direct the film (Warner Brothers was one of the producers) but he was sued for taking out too much of the political content by both Brecht and Weill who were ironclad Marxists. Nevertheless, the film certainly kept some of it, particularly in the final act but it never hits us over the head with it. Thankfully, we still have the film around today because once Hitler came to power he burned all the copies he could find. At the same time Brecht and Weill wisely hightailed it out of Germany.

I think it is a brilliant film - up there with Pabst's Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl that had both starred Louise Brooks. It is wonderfully stylized with it all being shot on well-designed interior and exterior sets and there is a theatricality to it - a rhythm to it - not only the music that permeates it but in the way the actors move, the marching, the robberies, the escape - everything feels calibrated to a beat. The cinematography from Fritz Arno Wagner is expressive and vivid - focusing at times on faces that only a mother could love and the camera moves fluidly through scenes like soft butter. Wagner worked with Murnau (Nosferatu), Robison (Warning Shadows), Fritz Lang (Spies and M) and with Pabst a few times. It is a pleasure just to watch how he shoots and lights the film.

Mackie (Rudolf Forster) is a charming scoundrel who has an eye for women and a loose wallet to be gotten. He runs a gang of scalawags who he organizes to steal everything not nailed down. Well-dressed like a gentleman, a derby hat titled at a roguish angle and a flirting patter that few women that can resist. While walking down the street he picks up the lovely lass Polly and before the night is out (in a wonderful smoky bar scene) he has proposed to her for marriage to take place that very night - something that he seems to do often. He orders his gang to steal everything needed - including a pastor - to have a wedding celebration.

And that they do but it turns out that Polly is the daughter of the King of Thieves who has organized all the beggars and taught them the art of suffering for money. He doesn't take kindly to his daughter marrying down and declares war on Mackie. Later Mackie is betrayed by an old girlfriend/prostitute while he is visiting a brothel while on the run from the police. This is Jenny played by Lotte Lenya, who was married to Kurt Weill at the time and many years later was the memorable Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love. She gets to sing Jenny's Lament.

The anti-capitalistic message is brought late into the film. When Mackie goes on the run Polly takes over the gang and quickly moves it to a "legit" business - buys a bank - as she explains to her boys - why pickpocket for small change when with a bank you can legally steal a lot more money and be respectable. And in the end the poor are as usual screwed by everyone. The mood of the film is never heavy or dreary - amusing, satirical, light on its feet with a feel good ending and a feel good song. Just a terrific film.