Arts & Events

Moving Pictures: The Talkies Learn to Move: Pabst's 'Threepenny Opera'

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday November 30, 2007

When Bertolt Brecht and G.W. Pabst decided to collaborate in bringing the former's Threepenny Opera to the screen, both men were at the peak of their careers. But the collaboration would be anything but smooth. Indeed it was fraught with conflict, as so many Brecht projects were.  

The film has just been released on DVD by Criterion in a two-disc edition that features a beautiful transfer of the German film along with a host of features, including commentary by film scholars David Bathrick and Eric Rentschler, the French version of the film, and a documentary and essay on the adaptation from stage to screen. 

Brecht drafted the original screenplay, but delivered something far different than he was asked for. Rather than simply bringing the original play to the screen, he drastically altered it, adding and removing scenes, rearranging the structure, and greatly altering the content and focus of the tale.  

Brecht had already clashed with composer Kurt Weill over the play itself, each man claiming credit for the production's success. Now he clashed with Pabst, who took Brecht's script and bent it to his own aims. But as Bathrick and Rentschler point out in the disc's commentary track, the two men may not have been so far apart as they claimed. Each was perhaps reluctant to credit the other with the film's better qualities and reserved the right to scapegoat the other should the critics be unkind. 

Shortchanged by the film, however, is Kurt Weill, for few of his compositions made it onto the screen. 

The final product, though it may bear relatively little resemblance to the stage production, is an excellent film and a milestone of early sound cinema. Pabst often replaces scenes of dialogue with imagery, with long gazes, with near-silent shots in which the actors convey the plot without words. And at a time when the camera had been rendered almost stagnant by cumbersome sound equipment, Pabst's camera roams through the sets with fluidity and ease. If the camerawork at times seem similar to Fritz Lang's M, released that same year, there is good reason: Both films were shot by legendary cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner. 

There are other similarities between the two films. Both examine the criminal underworld, and do so with a blend of humor, intrigue and distaste. And both feature wonderfully sustained sequences of cat-and-mouse amid the squalid streets. One image in Threepenny Opera is especially striking: One of Mack the Knife's henchmen has stolen an armchair and is running through the streets with police in pursuit. He crosses a courtyard, invisible beneath the chair, looking like an ant carrying its booty back to the nest. He scurries across the courtyard and out of view, only to appear again with the police right behind him, firing bullets into the upholstery. 

In America, the reaction to synchronized sound technology had been extreme. The first couple of years worth of American sound films were filled with wall-to-wall talk; the audience was rarely given a break from the endless chatter of showgirls and dandy men about town. It seemed everyone was a wit, armed with a ready punchline for every situation. In Germany, by contrast, sound was being used more judiciously and with greater sophistication. Filmmakers like Pabst and Lang did not give up the virtues of the more image-focused cinema of silent pictures. Rather than treating sound as an end in itself, they used it as a means to an end, as another tool in the creation of compelling cinema. Sound was used as atmosphere, or fused into the story as a plot point, and often employed in one sequence merely to draw greater attention to the silence of another sequence. 

The result is a film of richness and depth, with sound and image combining in the creation of a sharply rendered underworld. The words of Brecht, the music of Weill, the images of Pabst and Wagner — a fruitful collaboration of some of Germany's greatest talents. 


Threepenny Opera 

Directed by G.W. Pabst 

Criterion Collection, $39.95.