The Threepenny Opera

The Threepenny Opera (1931, Germany, 111 mins)

Source: Filmstock Research Prod. Co: Warner Bros. Pictures, Société des Films Sonores Tobis Prod: Seymour Nebenzahl Dir: G.W. Pabst Scr: Leo Lania, Ladislaus Vajda, Béla Balázs, based on Bertolt Brecht’s play, freely adapted from The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay Photography: Fritz Arno Wagner Editor: Hans Oser Art Dir: Andrej Andrejew Music: Kurt Weill

Cast: Rudolf Forster, Lotte Lenja, Carola Neher, Reinhold Schünzel, Fritz Rasp, Valeska Gert, Wladimir Sokoloff.

London: 1728. John Gay came up with a winning combination: to the traditional tale of the King of the Beggars he added the stock figures of the Criminal Ruler and the Noble Outlaw. The result is The Beggar’s Opera (1728) featuring Mr Peachum, receiver of stolen goods/nark, and the dashing Captain Macheath, highwayman and lover of Peachum’s daughter, Polly. An audience surfeited with Italian opera (“an exotic and irrational entertainment” said Samuel Johnson) suddenly understood the words, which were sharp and subversive, and could hum the traditional English tunes, prettily arranged by Pepusch.

Germany: the 1920s. The one plain thing in a chaotic world is that something extreme must be done. For the poor, there is often no coal. From the railway stations, people carry home hessian sacks of twigs they have collected on the outskirts of town. In the period of hyper-inflation, the number of one-million-mark stamps required to post an envelope cover nearly the whole of its surface. There is a socialist government, but it is not nearly socialist enough for Rosa Luxembourg, for Karl Liebknecht, for the Left inspired by the news from Russia. Luxembourg and Liebknecht are killed. Their murderers pose for a group photograph; they resemble a board of directors after a day at the races.

The story-house of the West has been almost fully privatised, but there are resistances. A Left culture forms in Weimar Germany, built on solid 19th century foundations. There are newspapers, publishing houses, coffee shops, theatres, theatre subscription schemes for workers, collective styles of work. Filmmakers, writers, poets, caricaturists, composers, are united by their social passions, desperate to re-make the arts, re-make the world, re-draw the boundaries between the arts and between the arts and the world (1). As memoriam for Luxembourg, Kurt Weill writes Das Berliner Requiem on texts by “Brecht”, Käthe Kollwitz makes woodcuts, Mies van der Rohe designs a funerary sculpture. The decade closes, the years narrow down towards 1933. In Russia, Zhdanov appears; Stalin gets ready; the first disquieting stories reach the German comrades.

In such a period who are the criminals? Why play by the rules? Whose rules? Almost exactly 200 years after its première, Elisabeth Hauptmann, with whom Brecht is currently not sleeping, reads John Gay’s text. Hauptmann slaves for Brecht: she takes him to the dentist, completes his unfinished texts, develops his fragmentary ideas, hammers versions into a unity fit to stage or print. But just now Brecht is sleeping with some other people, mostly the actress Carola Neher. Hauptmann sees of course how Gay’s parable could articulate the situation in Berlin. She also registers Polly, the strong woman who plucks Macheath from the gallows and who became the central character in Gay’s banned 1729 sequel (2). Now she turns Gay into (excellent) German.

Brecht is not interested; he is trying not to complete some other things. But when in Schlichter’s Café, he meets a cashed-up impresario who needs a script, he sells what is ostensibly Hauptmann’s property. He adds some lyrics taken from other people (3). He even writes a few of his own. He insists that Kurt Weill write the music (and for this, we should be grateful) (4). Carola Neher will of course play Polly (5).

For the actual show, now entitled (by Lion Feuchtwanger) The Threepenny Opera [Die Dreigroschenoper], the rehearsals were chaotic. It became “a show that was now well beyond any single person’s control, taking whatever shape it had from a wild and wide variety of suggestions, and built on the debris of multiple crises.” (6) Casablanca, anyone? It was one of the most brilliant theatre events of the most brilliant theatrical decade of the 20th century.

Onstage and on film, this is a piece about Peachum, who knows that mere need has never opened purse nor wallet. Thus he issues licences to beggars in return for a fee and supplies them with the wherewithal (vacant eyes, stumps, ululations, property waifs) to appeal to whichever benevolent emotion is currently in fashion. There is Macheath the gang-boss, who lurks and lords it and is made, unmade, then made again by “sexuelle Hörigkeit“ which might translate as “sexual bondage”. There is Polly, who starts out in thrall to Mackie and ends up running the show. There is acid enough in this script to dissolve a safe. Older commentaries all agree that somewhere in it there must be social critique. Its “author” opened a Swiss bank account to deposit the tax-free earnings from productions outside Germany; married (neither Hauptmann, nor Neher) and became an icon of the Anglophone Left for three decades.

Now enter Nerofilm AG and G.W.Pabst, who has already made Pandora’s Box (1929) out of the two “Lulu” plays of Frank Wedekind. Wedekind is another romantic outlaw, and an idol of Brecht’s youth. Like the Wedekind, the “Brecht” text is ethically “transgressive” in endlessly sliding ways (which is to say, from another point of view, simply antinomian). Like the Wedekind, it offers the director splendidly animal characters who can be closely followed, watched from a hiding place while they prowl the jungle of the cities.

Brecht insists on writing the script for the film, but that’s all right, he doesn’t. When the company goes ahead anyway, he sues for misappropriation of intellectual property. Brecht loses, but still makes some more money in an out-of-court payment. By now master of an ideological rhetoric he writes a harangue of self-justification about the trial (Die Dreigroschenprozess).

Meanwhile Pabst makes a film whose atmosphere of corruption and menace could almost be bottled, one for which sets of unprecedented complication are built, level piled upon level. Nets and screens and grilles and bars ensure that much of the time the human figure and the material object are elided in the image. From waterfront, to underground hide-out to “Victorian” brothel, Pabst and his team go in for décor. The eye feasts, despite the print quality. (The Nazis burnt the original.) The actors, especially Rudolf Forster as Macheath, are expert and full of charm, a word which Paul Rotha uses in his 1931 piece for Celluloid: must we say they seduce us? The film’s great setpiece, the march of the beggars through London’s streets to disrupt the Coronation is all the more powerful, because nothing has led the viewer to expect such a grimly simple sight as the ruler and the ruled facing off.

The beggars charge into the procession, and there is a dramatic confrontation as they come face to face with the open carriage in which the QUEEN is riding. Unable to bear the beggars’ gaze, the QUEEN finally hides her face behind her fan, and the carriage moves on (7).

The stage version (as its originators conceived it) has nothing to touch Pabst’s realisation of that moment (8).

Thomas Elsaesser begins his full-scale fully-theorised account of the film by announcing that he won’t spend too much time on the question of how Pabst compares with Brecht. He concludes:

Here lies the peculiar achievement of Pabst’s mise en scène in The Threepenny Opera: he was able to imbue every aspect of the filmic process with value in itself, as an added attraction to the commodity status of the artifact which was the opera and became the film (9).

This kind of thing robs Pabst of live recognition as effectively as Brecht robbed Hauptmann. There needs to be a fresh look at this film, for the work Pabst was engaged in was neither a competition with Brecht nor a contorted game of “value-adding” in which the word “value” has been discoursed out of all worth. However we may feel about Elizabeth Hauptmann (a mug? a martyr?) if we must see it in intertextual terms, Pabst was engaging with a text which is demonstrably if somewhat wackily “collective”, a highly specific product of a group within the Weimar cultural Left. If Pabst and his team have suffered in the misplaced individualising of the discussions, so have the original stage director and his team, a team which extended well outside the walls of the theatre on the Schiffbauerdamm.

Beyond the intertextual, for those of us who might still want to go there, the film has a lot to do with those of little power – those in the darkness – and with the very superior attractions of those who connive to benefit; and the extreme difficulty of holding together the feelings associated with those two kinds of people.


  1. On this Left culture see John Willett, The New Sobriety: art and politics in the Weimar period, Thames and Hudson, London, c. 1978.
  2. For Hauptmann, see John Fuegi, The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht, London, HarperCollins, 1994. I am working from the Flamingo reprint, 1995. Key references are p. 141 et seq, on mothering and plagiarism, and p. 193 et seq on The Threepenny Opera. It is fascinating to note how Fuegi, President of the International Brecht Society and so on, while fully justifying those who for a long time have thought Brecht a contemptible man, manages to preserve “aesthetic value” in the works. Essential to the operation is the view that what arouses Hauptmann to work on the John Gay is a hapless identification process with her own Brecht troubles: “the woman’s angle” lives.
  3. Brecht was sued, successfully, by one K.L. Ammer, who had translated the Villon texts purloined for Threepenny.
  4. The score is a miracle of theatre music. Something close to the original is available, Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) Teldec 9031-72025-2, with Lotte Lenya amongst others from the 1930 cast. For a modern version in good sound, there is Decca 430 075-2 DH, conducted by John Mauceri with René Kollo and Ute Lemper. Lotte Lenya made several later versions, still in the catalogue, but by then she lived in New York and her voice had come to resemble Tom Waits’, which has its charms, but wrecks the vocal layout.
  5. She missed out. But she made it into Pabst’s film.
  6. Fuegi, p. 201. And see his astonishing summary of the end-product at p. 203.
  7. The Threepenny Opera, Lorrimer Publishing, New York, 1984, p. 111. Script and film vary widely, particularly in the second half. This published version contains a useful and quite detailed account of the differences and my quotation is taken from Lorrimer’s summary. The poor hack who did the summary gets no credit. The script is also available in Masterworks of the German Cinema, Lorrimer, 1973.
  8. A contemporary stage director could invent an equivalent. But then, there’s Brecht: “Man kann Shakespeare verbessern wenn man ihn verbessern kann.” “Improve Shakespeare, if you can improve on him.”
  9. Thomas Elsaesser, “Transparent Duplicities”, in The Films of G.W Pabst: An Extra-Territorial Perspective, ed. Eric Rentschler, Rutgers UP, New Brunswick and London, 1990, p. 115.

About The Author

Bruce Williams is Head of the School of Arts and Media, La Trobe University. Nowadays, he teaches speech and writing.

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