One DVD set that has really been intriguing me is the 1931 film version of The Threepenny Opera (AKA "Die 3 Groschen-Oper"), which was released in 2007 in a sumptuous two-disc edition by the Criterion Collection. The set includes the German- and French-language versions of the film, both directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst. Apparently it was a common practice at the time to shoot different versions of the same film simultaneously, and the result is a fascinating shot-by-shot recreation with separate casts.
Die Dreigroschenoper was a huge European theatrical success in the late '20s for playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill. It would be another 25 years before the show would see comparable acclaim in the U.S. The original Broadway run of The Threepenny Opera in 1933 lasted only 12 performances, whereas the 1954 Off-Broadway revival ran for a total of 2,707. The show has since attained classic status, and has seen four subsequent Broadway revivals.
But, anyway, back to the '20s/'30s. Shortly after the show's successful European premiere, German film director Georg Pabst approached Brecht and Weill about bringing Threepenny Opera to the screen. The DVD set also includes some wonderfully informative documentary footage revealing the often tempestuous story behind the film's creation. Brecht saw the film as an opportunity to remake the show in light of his burgeoning Communist sensibilities, and crafted a screenplay that was an even harsher indictment of the bourgeoisie and even more sympathetic towards the proletariat. Problem was, Pabst wanted to film the stage show as it was, so he brought in a number of European writers to finish the screenplay. Brecht sued, and lost.
As for the film itself, some of the cinematic techniques are pretty primitive. This is 1931, after all. But there's also a strong sense of German expressionism present, and a sharp and brooding visual style. And the performances, while stylized, are deeply affecting. Plus, it's pretty darned funny at times. The put me in mind of not only "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" but also a Keystone Cops short, all set to Kurt Weill's glorious music. I'm exaggerating a bit here, but I was genuinely surprised at the wit in evidence. I went in expecting to be academically intrigued, but wound up being thoroughly entertained.
Brecht and Weill purists will undoubtedly balk at the major changes that the film makes to the original piece. The film cuts quite a few characters, including Lucy Brown, as well as about 50% of Weill's score. Among the numbers cut are two of my personal favorites, the "Jealousy Duet" and the "Tango-Ballad," although the latter is used as underscoring during Macheath's trip to the whorehouse. The movie is certainly no replacement for the show, but it stands as a compelling complement.
Ironically, Pabst and company wound up retaining in the film quite a
Brecht's ideas from his original screenplay, including a brilliant new
ending involving an unholy alliance among the show's main characters:
Macheath, Tiger Brown, Polly Peachum, and her father. Plus, it's a genuine treat to see the fabulous Lotte Lenya play the role that she originated, that of Jenny the prostitute, a role she would later recreate, and win a Tony for, in the Off-Broadway revival. (What's that, you say? A Tony for an Off-Broadway performance? Well, it was the first, and last, time that an Off-Broadway performance was so honored.)
One of the refreshing things about watching the movie in German and French was not having to worry about the quality of the English translation. Anyone familiar with Threepenny knows that there are nearly as many translations as there have been productions. And anyone familiar with me knows that I'm a stickler for scansion and lyrical elegance, which the English translations of Threepenny often lack. I tend to be a fan of the 1954 Marc Blitzstein version, probably because it's the one I'm most familiar with, but also because the words seem to actually fit the music better. In his recent review of the CD release of the 1976 Broadway version of Threepenny, Steven Suskin puts it quite well:
Blitzstein, unlike various others who have tried to translate Threepenny
into English, was an accomplished lyricist; the words have been adapted
to fit the music and the language, rather than slavishly retaining the
Brechtian images...Thus, in Blitzstein's
adaptation, the songs sound like songs.
In other words, Blitzstein did it best, but everyone else seems to think they can do better, so whenever we see another Threepenny, it usually "boasts" a new translation. Each makes claims of being "truer to Brecht's intent" or "closer to the original German" or whatever. Most fail, because they're written by translators, not by lyricists. But comparing the different versions does offer a fascinating opportunity to see how different people interpret Brecht's original words. The differences are often jarring, and the chance to compare them is unprecedented: there really isn't any other major work in the musical theater canon that affords such an opportunity. Opera, yes. Musical theater, no.