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The Threepenny Opera (The Criterion Collection)

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

The sly melodies of composer Kurt Weill and the daring of dramatist Bertolt Brecht come together onscreen under the direction of German auteur G.W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box) in this classic adaptation of the Weimar-era theatrical sensation. Set in the impoverished back alleys of Victorian London, The Threepenny Opera follows underworld antihero Mackie Messer (a.k.a. Mack the Knife) as he tries to woo Polly Peachum and elude the authorities. With its palpable evocation of corruption and dread, Pabst’s Threepenny Opera remains a benchmark of early sound cinema. It is presented here in both its celebrated German and rare French versions.

Note: The aspect ratio of this production is 1.19:1. This specifc ratio is particularly rare as it was used only in Germany prior to World War II, and has not been widely used since.

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The stage version of The Threepenny Opera caused a sensation in Berlin when it opened in 1928, and a movie version was quickly sold and shot. This 1931 film actually differs greatly from the stage production, yet it deserves its status as a classic of Weimar-era Germany (it was banned after the Nazis consolidated their power). Both were based on John Gay's famous The Beggar's Opera, but writer Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill added their own layers of genius. The story revolves around Mackie Messer (played by the fearsomely tough Rudolf Forster), also known as "Mack the Knife," a London bad boy whose underworld adventures expose all the hypocrisies and squalor of urban life. Those familiar with the stage score will note that the movie cuts a great deal of Weill's music, in favor of more social criticism; Brecht, high on socialist theory, had largely re-written the play when he turned in his screenplay for the movie. (He was then fired off the project, but many of his new ideas remained.)

Director G.W. Pabst (Pandora's Box) captures both the story's docklands setting and the unmistakable whiff of 1920s Berlin decadence, along with the bitter aftertaste of the original. The music remains stirring, and the indelible Lotte Lenya (Weill's wife and the enduring interpreter of his music) plays Jenny, the slattern Mackie thrusts aside to marry Polly (Carola Neher), daughter of the king of the beggars.

The sheer beauty of the film's black-and-white images is well served by Criterion's release, which also includes a second disc containing L'opera de quat'sous, a French-language version of the film, directed by Pabst simultaneously with the shooting of the German version. Its cast (including Albert Prejean and, in a small role, Antonin Artaud) and lighter tone make it a decidedly less compelling movie than the German take. A 48-minute documentary detailing the story of Threepenny's journey from stage to screen is an unusually good backgrounder; other features include a commentary track, a visual comparison of the German and French versions, and a delightful new introduction for the movie's re-release in East Germany two decades after its making, featuring actors Fritz Rasp and Ernst Busch. --Robert Horton


Special Features

None.

Product Details

  • Actors: Lotte Lenya, Rudolf Forster
  • Directors: G.W. Pabst
  • Format: Multiple Formats, NTSC, Black & White, Dolby, Digital Sound, Subtitled
  • Language: English, German
  • Subtitles: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: Unknown
  • Number of discs: 2
  • Rated: Unrated
  • Studio: Criterion
  • DVD Release Date: September 18, 2007
  • Run Time: 110 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B000SFJ4KE
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #28,645 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "The Threepenny Opera (The Criterion Collection)" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: DVD
"You gents who to a virtuous life would lead us
And turn us from all wrongdoing and sin,
First of all see to it that you feed us
Then start your preaching. That's where to begin..."

Bertolt Brecht was a hard-nosed socialist, an unpleasant and selfish gent who often took others' ideas and transformed them into something uniquely forceful and original. He believed that the proletariat struggle against the bourgeoisie was unending. When he and the composer Kurt Weill, equally original and talented in Weimar Germany, but who was not nearly so politically rigid or so personally obnoxious, collaborated on Die Dreigoschenoper in 1928, it probably flabbergasted them both to have a huge popular success on their hands. Much of the reason is Weill's clever, pungent score, but a lot of the credit goes to Brecht's utter cynicism about how the privileged behave to the workers. Says one of Threepenny's characters, "The rich of this world have no qualms about causing misery but can't stand the sight of it." The movie G. W. Pabst made from the theater production eliminates great chunks of Weill's music. One would think this would be a terrible mistake. What we have, however, is a movie of social criticism that is so cynical with such self-serving characters that the songs Pabst kept seem to lift an already excellent film into greatness.

We're seeing the story of Mackie Messer (Rudolf Forster), a man as charming as a snake. He's a murderer, a rapist, an arsonist, a thief...all tools of his trade. Mackie in his tight suit, grey bowler hat and with his ivory cigar holder preys on others. We learn all about Mackie when a street singer (Ernst Busch) entertains the crowd with stories of his crimes.
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46 of 49 people found the following review helpful By Ted on September 25, 2007
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
This review is for the Criterion Collection DVD edition of the film.

The Threepenny Opera, released in Germany as "Die Dreigroschenoper" is a film directed by renowned Germin director G.W. Pabst. The film is based on a play of the same name which is based on John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera."

The film is about Mackie Messer also known as Mack the Knife who marries a woman he loves. Her father is infuriated and tries to have him killed.

The film has anti-capitalist themes which led to it being banned in West Germany after World War II for years, but promoted in East Germany. The film contains some fine songs and accompaniment with the barrel organ.

The release also contains the French language version of the film.

There are some great special features in this double disc set.

Disc one contains the German language version of the film with optional audio commentary by film scholars David Bathrick and Eric Rentschler. Rentschler is an expert on early German films and has written many books on the subject. Also on disc one is a documentary on the story's adaptation into the film.

Disc two contains the French language version of the film (L'opéra de quant'sous) with non-removable English subtitles, a comparison of German and French versions with a split screen side by side look at matching scenes, an interview with Fritz Rasr, and a gallery of production photos by Hans Casparius and sketches by Andrej Andrejew.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By tobb delow on February 16, 2008
Format: DVD
The film is wonderful. The restoration of the print is shockingly beautiful. I have seen the film many times before, but watching this version was like seeing a whole new film.

The extras are a mixed bag--and aren't they a big part of why we buy Criterion editions? Some are interesting. (Having the entire French version is cool.) But the commentary is really bad. The two profs speaking have only a simpleminded understanding of Brecht's theory of Epic Theater, Gestus, Lehrstuck, etc so their "explanations" are more misleading than informative.

Also, some misinformation in the documentaries. For example, one film expert claims there is link between the stage musical and Weimar cabaret. Lenya famously said that she and Weill never set foot in a cabaret and anyone familiar with what went on there would recognize there was little connection. However, someone who only knows the Weimar cabaret genre from the Kander and Ebb musical which borrows from Threepenny might imagine there is a connection. But shouldn't scholars correct misconceptions, rather than promoting them?

If there was a better commentary track and more accurate documentaries, this would be five-star.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 18, 1999
Format: VHS Tape
Considering its age, and the sheer fact of it's survival in spite of the Nazi's destruction of all copies they could find, it is an interesting and impressive piece. Since this was made close to the time that Weil and Brecht wrote the piece, I think it is closer to the rubrick than later versions. My only problem was that, as is often the case, the subtitles bore little or no resemblance to what was actually being sugn.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By John D. Steyers on October 25, 2007
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
I have been waiting for a quality restoration for DVD of this masterpiece for a long time. As usual, Criterion Collection does not disappoint. It should be made clear from the outset, though, that this is definitely Pabst's cinematic reworking of "Threepenny Opera", and not really the work as Brecht intended it. Indeed, it is well-known that Brecht fought Pabst's interpretation fiercely, and was barred from the set of the film. Still, most of the score is still present, superbly performed, with Brecht's incomparably acerbic lyrics intact. {Brecht's poetry in general and his song lyrics in particular have never been satisfactorily translated, and can be fully appreciated only in German.) The major link in this film between Brecht's original concept and Pabst's version is surely the presence of Lotte Lenya, whose performance (particularly of "Seeraeuberjenny"} is well worth the price of the DVD all by itself!
Pabst has created a film version of "Threepenny Opera" which, while not Brecht's own vision of the piece, goes a long way towaard showing us what musical theatre can (and should more often) be.
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