We're through with romanticism, now the seriousness of life begins.
– Polly Peachum, The Three Penny Opera.
It's appropriate that the The Three Penny Opera, G.W. Pabst's 1931 film adaptation of the wildly successful 1928 stage play The Beggar's Opera should have become immured in a court case before it was even completed. Appropriate because both the film and play are concerned with the interweaving of legality and illegality within capitalism, the way that businesses and the state shade into gangs and rackets and vice versa. The case was brought by Bertolt Brecht- co-writer with Elisabeth Hauptmann of the original stage play script – and Kurt Weil – composer of songs and music for both stage and screen versions – upon the rejection of Brecht's script for the film adaptation. Brecht lost the case, a result that may have partly been down to him substantially revising the original stage version of The Threepenny Opera in order to sharpen its anti-capitalist message. For instance, while the conflict between Peachum, the King of the Beggars, and Mackie in the completed film is as much personal as about business, Brecht's original script emphasized that it was essentially nothing more than a conflict between two businessmen and their respective capitalist enterprises. The point being that the underworld is based upon waged and unwaged labour as much as the world of capitalist legality and the two are often indistinguishable. That another racket, that of the 'law', is deeply embedded within this conflict is all to the point. Despite this watering down of Brecht's script the film surprisingly retains the Marxist theme that both criminal enterprises and the 'law' are nothing but business enterprises. As the communist critic and friend of Brecht, Walter Benjamin wrote at the time: 'Brecht is concerned with politics; he reveals the crime latent in business'.
Characteristically, Brecht used the court case as the springboard for a text - The Threepenny Litigation - in which he argued he had set it up as a 'social experiment' in the proletarianization of cultural producers i.e proving that within capitalism they own nothing. Brecht viewed the trial as a grotesque theatre and wrote that it revealed that 'justice, freedom, character have all become conditional upon the process of production...' Even failure and defeat confirmed the basic tenet of Brecht's epic theatre, that capitalism is best apprehended through physical gestures and manifest statements rather than psychological depth. The trial itself exemplified this. Cannily, Brecht later squeezed some cash out of the studio by threatening to force a re-trial and proved he was much more an irritant nurtured on pragmatism than a romantic weeping over creative control.
That he lost the case is not to suggest that Pabst's film version loses all of Brecht's surgical cutting into the real of capitalism – even if the lush expressionist darkness of the film undoubtedly runs counter to the bare sets of Epic Theatre. The Threepenny Opera is best viewed as being at the intersection of some of the most vital if contradictory cultural and political currents of Weimar Germany. Feeding into The Threepenny Opera are Pabst's own darkly expressionist romanticism; Brecht's determined theatrical practice of estrangement, its emphasis upon making unnatural through gesture, statement and voice a capitalism that theatre and cinema traditionally naturalise; communist crude thinking (the poor are always fucked...); the venality of culture as business exemplified in the studio system; the cynical eroticism of Weimar cabaret; the new collective forms of cultural production enabled by both cinema and prolekult experimentation; and the unexplored potential of new forms of cinematic technology as the 'talkie' replaced its silent predecessor. All of these are present in The Threepenny Opera even if the direct Brechtian gaze and voice of Pirate Jenny is seen through the fog of an imaginary Victorian London re-constructed on a Weimar film set.
The Threepenny Opera is a strange hybrid that can't quite let go of either big studio 'romanticism' and expressionist shadows or the 'seriousness' of Brecht's radical experimentation with form. But, given that the songs were so popular in Weimar Berlin that a Beggar's Opera bar opened dedicated to them, this distinction might be too simplistic; Brecht's experimental theatre practice came out of a collective, and popular, communist political culture. That Pabst retained much of Brecht's script- such as the horde of beggars descending upon the Queen – underlines that The Threepenny Opera can't be reduced to a simple recuperation of radical culture by an unscrupulous studio. Maybe, contra Brecht, the expressionist fog and shadows of Pabst's London express as much about the chaotic obfuscation inherent to Weimar Republic capitalism as the sharply delineated gestures and slogans of the theatre of estrangement illuminate it. The mob of beggar's could be a foretaste of a proletarian uprising or a prescient suggestion of the threat of a disenfranchised crowd roused to action by the proto-fascist rhetoric of the beggar king. Pabst's expressionist sets, with their poor lighting, retain and underline this ambiguity. The tensions between the aesthetic strategies of Pabst and Brecht are refracted through one another much as Weimar culture itself was fraught with political, economic and social crisis; the King of the Beggars is also key to the racket, the only way for gangsters to prosper is to own a bank not to rob one. It's this insight into the way the black (illegal) economy not only shades into the world of legitimate capitalist enterprise (see Mexico, Italy, the UK, pretty much anywhere today) but is essentially interdependent with it that makes The Threepenny Opera more than a bit of Weimar cabaret nostalgia. Benjamin writes of Brecht's even more acerbic Threepenny Novel, featuring a crooked underworld/ military industrial complex deal:
This detective novel depicts the objective truth about the relationship between bourgeois legality and crime, the latter being shown as a special case of exploitation sanctioned by the former. Sometimes one slides easily into the other.
There's little light or hope in The Threepenny Opera both literally in its cinematography or as an imaginative space for optimism and hope. Pabst's direction might be said to reflect an authentically Brechtian cynicism albeit in an entirely 'wrong' expressionist register. In the film even the rare dreams of utopia and escape are ultimately predicated upon violence and nihilism, in a stark recognition of how fucked up this world of rackets is. Or as Pirate Jenny sings in her (or rather Kurt Weil's) revenge fantasy of a victorious class struggle that arrives on 'The Black Freighter/ With a skull on its mast head':
Coming out from the ghostly freighter/ They're moving in the shadows where no-one can see/ And they're chaining up people/ And delivering 'em to me/Asking me: 'kill them now or later ? /Asking me: 'kill them now or later ?/ Noon by the clock and so still at the dock/You can hear a fog horn miles away/ And in that quiet of death i'll say: right now !'/ right now !/ And they pile up the bodies/ And i'll say: 'that'll learn you./ That'll learn you./ And the ship/ The black freighter/ Disappears out to sea/ And on it is me!
Lotte Lenya sings Pirate Jenny
Nina Simone sings Pirate Jenny
Bertolt Brecht Poems
(In memory of Josef Klein. Beheaded for robbery and murder 2 July 1927 in Augsburg gaol.)
I dedicate this poem to Josef Klein
It's all I can do for him, for they cut
His head off just this morning. Pity. But
That made it clear we don't approve of crime
That's how they handle flesh and blood, the swine.
Strapped flat upon a wooden board it rode
(It got a bit of Bible that some Holy Joe'd
Picked out, well knowing that no God loves Klein.)
But I think that its really rather much.
Approve it? No, I'd really rather not
Since their crime never stops once they've begun it.
I don't care to be seen among that lot.
(At least not until I've had time to touch
The money that they owe me for this sonnet.)
The Theatre Communist
A hyacinth in his buttonhole
On the Kurfurstendamm
This youth feels
The emptiness of the world.
In the W.C it becomes clear to him:he
Is shitting into emptiness.
Tired of work
He soils the cafes
Behind the newspapers
He smiles dangerously.
This is the man who
Is going to break up this world with his foot like
A small dry cowpat.
For 3000 marks a month
He is prepared to put on the misery of the masses
For 100 marks a day
The injustice of the world.