JANUARY 4, 2019
A rich man and a poor man
stand and look at each other.
And the poor weakly says:
If I weren’t poor, then you wouldn’t be rich.
— from “Alfabet” by Bertolt Brecht (1934)
“FIRST COMES FOOD, then morality!” So starts Mack the Knife — Brecht’s Threepenny Film, Joachim A. Lang’s cinematic foray into a previously unexplored corner of the Brechtian universe: it’s part-biopic, part-homage, part-metacinematic staging of a film that shouldn’t actually exist — but now does. Based on Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, which careened into the late Weimar Republic with all the subtlety of your drunk roommate crashing home at 4:00 a.m., this film is Lang’s attempt to realize one of Brecht’s unfinished ambitions: to bring The Threepenny Opera to film. And to do it in a way that’s uncompromisingly Brechtian — biting, just on the right side of crude, and arrogant as hell. If a smirk could be a film, it would be this one.
The opening cri de guerre, delivered by the gangster Macheath in the guttural growl of a Berliner accent, kicks off Mack the Knife (Mackie Messer in German), and suddenly we’re in Berlin. The year is 1928. We’re sitting in an old theater with a large wooden stage, rows of plush red seats, and a massive chandelier looming over everyone’s heads. It’s a couple of hours before showtime, and the whole play isn’t sitting right yet. The final songs aren’t even finished. Actors are refusing to say their lines, and one actress screeches, “I can’t work like this!” while another actor mumbles something about this being “children’s theater.” A stagehand pulls a battered, garishly painted wooden horse on wheels onstage, the noble steed that’s supposed to triumphantly gallop into the last scene. It’s all impossibly absurd.
The producer and theater owner envision the next day’s headlines mocking their catastrophic opening night. Among them sits a man who pulls at his cigar and smiles an outrageous, almost disrespectful smile. This man, played by Lars Eidinger, is Bertolt Brecht, and the setting is the opening night of the play that will catapult him to fame and bring composer Kurt Weill’s grotesque, cacophonous, and supremely addictive songs about whores, pimps, cons, and thieves into every living room in Berlin and beyond.
Lang’s film is simultaneously a retelling of the success of Brecht and Weill’s work and of Brecht’s struggles to adapt The Threepenny Opera to the big screen, while also taking constant, gleeful shots at the cinematic fourth wall. We crash from 1928 to the grimy London of the 1800s within a split frame, with tumultuous scenes from the play brought to the screen in the way Brecht would have envisioned them, or at least in the way Lang would like to think Brecht envisioned them. In one scene, Brecht describes how he’d film an encounter between the characters, and suddenly we see it happening, with Eidinger’s Brecht lording over his creation like a First Testament God.
Every line in the film spoken by Eidinger is Brecht’s own, and the same goes for Robert Stadlober’s lines as Weill. All of the dialogue in the film comes from Brecht’s letters, diaries, and plays. Eidinger sparkles and makes every prosaic word of Brecht’s crack like actual dialogue. His Brecht is at once an off-stage deity and the kind of guy who “has more of a comment than a question” during the Q-and-A of a panel discussion. When Eidinger says lines like, “The Threepenny Opera is, if nothing else, an attempt to counteract the total enfeeblement of the opera,” it doesn’t come off as stiff so much as deliciously ostentatious.
This is a film that shouldn’t actually exist: 88 years overdue, conjured through the animation of dead letters, it strikes a frightening resemblance to some of the things running on the news today. As Brecht said, sometimes “something artificial is needed in order to represent reality.”
After the success of The Threepenny Opera, Brecht became a star, and the nascent German film industry wanted to capitalize on his celebrity. One studio, the Nero-Film AG, run by a German-American producer, seduced Brecht and Weill with a cushy contract. But once they were signed, a conflict that could only in the most generous terms be described as “creative differences” sealed the fate of Brecht’s cinematic ambitions for the next eight decades.
Brecht’s original play was staged in the squalor of Victorian London, where the gangster Macheath and his merry band of thieves are the lords of the underworld. Macheath falls in love with Polly, the daughter of the beggar king Peachum, who, with his drunken wife, “trains” the downtrodden on how to become exceptionally pitiable beggars in exchange for a fee. Peachum opposes his daughter’s choice of suitor, and manages to get Macheath arrested and sentenced to death by threatening to unleash his beggars en masse when Queen Victoria rides through the city, embarrassing city officials with unabashed displays of human misery. In the last scene, Macheath gets magically pardoned by the Queen and, in a bold-faced parody of a happy end, he becomes a baron.
Brecht’s film was going to kick it up a notch. He said it would be nonsense to film a work of theater without exploring the opportunities of the new cinematic medium, and he promptly wrote a screenplay for Die Beule – Ein Dreigroschenfilm (The Bruise – A Threepenny Film). His changes aimed to push the boundaries of what was possible, visually and thematically, in cinema, just as he had done in the theater. With Germany’s economy being further pummeled by the Wall Street crash in late 1929, Brecht’s screenplay was closely attuned to the puppet masters of capitalism directing the whole drama. He intended to use stylistic devices such as nightmarish dream sequences — which were harder to recreate on the stage — to show “a dark prophecy of doom,” as Renate Fischetti has written in her essay on Brecht’s screenplay. He also wanted to continue playing with the concept of the “fourth wall,” having actors speak directly into the camera and announce their fictional roles.
Revising his play, he found his biting satire of poverty and greed still a touch too sentimental and wanted to hold a mirror up to the collapsing world economy by turning Macheath into an honorable banker — why rob a bank if you can just found a bank? Macheath puts aside his life as a street criminal in order for something much more lucrative: ruling through finance. “We need businessmen, not politicians, to lead the state,” Macheath says, and if we didn’t know that Brecht wrote those words decades ago it wouldn’t be a stretch to believe that they emerged from the mouths of today’s more notable oligarchic leaders.
Brecht’s screenplay foresaw a capitalist dystopia where bankers stole and profited with complete impunity — at the time, a commentary on the stock market crash of 1929 and the resulting financial crisis, but in some ways even more prescient of the crash of 2008 and our current late-stage capitalist reality. Macheath envisions a housing crisis so accurately that it’s chilling to read: “You just need to get some money to build some poorly-constructed homes, sell them on credit, and then wait until buyers run out of money!” While Brecht’s original play still retained a playful, ironic touch, his screenplay, which he later turned into a book, the Dreigroschenroman, is a downright prophetic tale of social descent.
And yet the book, or its pre-nascent screenplay, is barely known. Toward the end, Brecht has Macheath and his thieves-cum-bankers take over, climbing out of their “stolen cars” and walking toward the bank: “[A]bout 40 gentlemen cross an imaginary line on the sidewalk. In front of the onlooker who does not believe his eyes, they metamorphose, in the moment of crossing, from the bearded robbers of a fallen epoch into the cultivated rulers of the modern money market.”
Obviously Nero-Film AG didn’t want to touch this. They wanted a love story, something they could market and sell as a working-class Romeo and Juliet. Brecht and Weill took the studio to court, and although Brecht lost and had to turn over his author’s rights to the studio, he couldn’t resist turning the whole spectacle into a “sociological experiment,” which he called “The Threepenny Trial” and used as an opportunity to take a swing at the film studios and their perceived pandering to mass culture. “When it comes to art, you and your people have about as much understanding as an oyster,” he wrote in the essay. In bad faith and poor form, he also said that he had “meant to lose,” as a way to show that “it was impossible to work with a film studio.”
A forgettable, cookie-cutter film was released in 1931 without Brecht’s participation or approval. It didn’t matter anyway. Two years later, the Nazis took over the government in Germany, and Brecht was forced to flee: his books were burned, and his plays were banned and labeled “perverse.”
In exile, Brecht kept working on his script, which would eventually become the Dreigroschenroman, published in Denmark in 1934. A lot had changed since the premiere of his play in 1928 and his escape. Brecht had watched his country slip into violence. He watched, in horror, as the Berliner police shot and killed working-class demonstrators during the “Bloody Mayday” of 1929. He watched as the Nationalsozialisten gained ground through terror, intimidation, hate, and promises of restored wealth and glory. He watched as Jews, such as his partner Kurt Weill, were suddenly excluded from public life, ostracized and villainized, a precursor of worse things to come. On February 28, 1933, the Reichstag was in flames and the Nazis took over absolute rule. He left the next day. He was meant to be arrested by the SS on March 1, 1933.
In the Dreigroschenroman, Macheath philosophizes about how to maintain a good world order, where businessmen lead the state. “We must ensure that businessmen are good businessmen, and that employees are good employees. In other words, the rich should be good rich people, and the poor should be good poor people. I am confident that such a state leadership will soon rise.”
Brecht’s words predict the rise of a regime where “good Germans” stay good Germans by allowing the systematic slaughter of their neighbors; they foresee the time of late capitalism, when banks implode the world economy; when one of the biggest democracies in the world elects a clown of a businessman to keep everyone in their place; when greed and corruption ensure the rich get richer and the poor poorer. In Lang’s film, Macheath and his robber-bankers cross an imaginary line on the sidewalk and suddenly Victorian London gives way to the city’s modern skyline, while around Macheath a sterile white bank forms, with him in the center as its ruler, complete with a suit and a briefcase. Meanwhile, the poor masses march silently across the city, “invisible and faceless,” stripped of their humanity. As Brecht wrote it, so it shall be.
It’s easy to feel fatalistic in the face of Brecht’s screenplay, reanimated for a contemporary audience — to feel that we’re predestined to act in a grotesque drama that continues to repeat itself. Eidinger, when asked about the film’s timeliness, expresses as much: “I find it really terrible to see that nothing’s really changed. You can take the 100-year-old material of the ‘Threepenny Opera’ and, like a clear foil, put it over our current times and see that we still have the same problems.”
While some may afford to look away, there are others who do not have the privilege of giving up, of wondering what the point is. It is for those people that a contemptuous anti-capitalistic snarl like Brecht’s Dreigroschenroman continues to demand that you look closely as bankers rob the people, as beggars are told their poverty is their own fault, and as capital continues to hold firm the steering wheel as we speed from one political catastrophe to the next.
And if this appeal to solidarity isn’t enough, then Brecht warns that an alternative looms either way: “Don’t take it too far,” Mrs. Peachum tells her husband, the Beggar King, in Brecht’s film. “You want to use misery, but remember that this misery is very large. Eventually, it will come to collect. Can you ensure that they won’t come for us?”
Luisa Rollenhagen is an Argentine-German writer working at the intersection of politics and culture. She’s written for GQ, BuzzFeed, Noisey, The Cut, and Popula, and you can find her complaining about things on Twitter @lulurollenhagen.