review for The Threepenny Opera on AllMovie

The Threepenny Opera (1931)
by Craig Butler review

Librettist Bertolt Brecht was understandably upset with the considerable liberties taken in transferring his and Kurt Weill's monumental The Threepenny Opera to the screen. Still, while director G.W. Pabst and his collaborators may have altered too much of the material (including cutting some of the score's most memorable numbers) and may have (perhaps inevitably) changed the theatrical tone of the piece, the result is still fascinating. If Brecht's sense of theatrical alienation is missing, his attacks on capitalism still come through strongly. As with the play, there's a distinct remoteness to the piece; one watches the film and while one is never bored, one is also never engaged in the characters, thus making the viewer an observer rather than a participant. The cast is strong, with Rudolf Forster making a charmingly ruthless Mackie whose stern authoritarianism still has a softer side to it. Carola Neher captures both the tender and the tough sides of Polly, and Reinhold Schuenzel is an amusing Tiger Brown. Best of all, however, are Fritz Rasp and Lotte Lenya. Rasp's Peachum is a slimy marvel, a Fagin with no soul and no remorse. Lenya's performance is mesmerizing; she gives so much weight to the film that her character seems a major force, rather than the relatively minor role that it is, and her "Pirate Jenny" is both shilling and thrilling. Pabst and his designers have given the film a distinctive chiaroscuro look, and the director has created several sequences -- including the climactic march during the coronation -- that are simply stunning. Ultimately, the problems in adapting Threepenny to the screen keep the film from being a classic, but it's still a unique experience.