The Threepenny Opera Review

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Victorian London and Polly Peachum is in love with gang leader Mackie Messer. However, her father is the King of the Beggars and he warns the corrupt chief of police, Tiger Brown, that his minions will disrupt the queen's forthcoming coronation unless he prevents the wedding.


Considering how many liberties Hollywood has taken down the years with the stage productions of some of America's finest songwriters, the controversy over G.W. Pabst's adaptation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's celebrated anti-musical seems like a storm in an academic teacup. The debate centres primarily on the question of authorship. It seems clear that Brecht's selfless assistant Elisabeth Hauptmann first identified the social similarities between John Gay's 1728 parody of Italian music, The Beggar's Opera, and the savage Depression then blighting Weimar Germany. She also appears to have translated the libretto. But did Brecht actively rework the material or did he simply sell it to an eager impresario, complete with a few stylistic embellishments, some songs co-written with composer Kurt Weill and a title devised by Lion Feuchtwanger?

   The film's protracted origins would matter less had Brecht not reneged on his agreement to write a screen version, as this prompted Pabst to ask a team led by Leo Lania, Bela Balasz and Ladislas Vajda to produce their own adaptation, which Brecht proceeded to challenge through the courts as a distortion of his political and dramatic intentions. His suit failed, but his champions have, ever since, decried the film as a hideous bowdlerisation that meekly resorted to a linear structure and dispensed with some of the show's most significant songs.

   Such a typically snobbish theatrical approach singularly fails to acknowledge the brooding excellence of Pabst's picture, which formed the central segment of an anti-capitalist trilogy that also included Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft. The performances were exceptional, with Lotte Lenya effortlessly stealing scenes as Pirate Jenny. Moreover, Andrei Andreiev's grimly stylised recreations of Victorian London were chillingly photographed through the gloom and fog by Fritz Arno Wagner to create a soul-destroying sense of place that could never be duplicated on a stage.

 The Nazis certainly recognised its power and destroyed all existing prints. However, a simultaneously produced French-language version enjoyed a measure of international success until, thanks to the decade-long efforts of Thomas J. Brandon, a reconstruction of the German original was released in 1960.

Superbly performed and whilst perhaps not capturing Brecht's theatrical intentions remains a powerful little picture.