The Harmonists (1997)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Docudrama, Musical Drama  |   Release Date - Mar 12, 1999 (USA)  |   Run Time - 97 min.  |   Countries - Austria, Germany  |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Buzz McClain

It's films such as this that make one wonder what other unknown masterpieces exist. Absolutely brilliant in every regard, The Harmonists is a stunning achievement. The film vividly renders its period setting, its casting is dead perfect, the performances are startlingly controlled, and the fact-based story touches and thrills without manipulation. Then there's the music: When was the last time an a cappella novelty song sung in German stuck in a viewer's head for three days? Ulrich Noethen is amazing as the poverty-stricken dreamer who puts together a vocal ensemble with a gimmick -- not only do the five singers perform without instrumentation (save for a bit of piano), but they take solos by mimicking wind instruments. It's a charming effect that summarizes the magic of the film overall. The Comedian Harmonists (as they are known to all of Europe) rise to the heights of fame, living in luxury when before they couldn't afford bread. In the last reel, when the Nazis begin to assert their nasty selves, the movie becomes a fragile study of character as the band members' friendship is tested to the straining point. There is heartbreak, but director Joseph Vilsmaier doesn't let the tragedy overwhelm the good spirits that have come before it. It's an amazing piece of work that won a shelf full of trophies overseas, but the film never got a chance in the States, playing on a handful of screens in painfully few cities.