Threepenny Opera, The (1931)

Threepenny Opera, The (1931)

“This truth you cannot shirk: man lives exclusively by dirty work.”

In 19th century London, crime boss Mackie Massler (Rudolf Forster) marries the daughter (Carola Neher) of the city’s top begging racketeer (Fritz Rasp), who is unhappy about Polly (Neher) being wed to a rival criminal, and asks the chief of police, Tiger-Brown (Reinhold Schunzel), to help capture Mackie. Meanwhile, Mackie’s former lover Jenny, a prostitute (Lotte Lenya), pines over Mackie and tries to help him escape.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Corruption
  • German Films
  • G.W. Pabst Films
  • Musicals
  • Play Adaptations
  • Thieves and Criminals

G.W. Pabst’s adaptation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s musical play about widespread societal corruption was fraught with conflict and drama — most specifically Brecht’s frustration with Pabst’s very loose interpretation of his work (Brecht quit midway through production, and Weill was eventually fired). It’s notable for being a film banned by the Nazis, with all prints they could find being destroyed — though thankfully, it was eventually reconstructed and recently restored. It remains a highly atmospheric film, with striking sets and cinematography throughout:

… and a noteworthy film debut by Lotte Lenya (in a supporting role):

The storyline — a broad satire of capitalism — is one that will probably appeal most to fans of Brecht’s work. I’ll admit I wasn’t overly familiar with the play, and had a hard time following along at first, as we see Forster seducing a couple of women (what exactly are his intentions?):

… and eventually marrying one of them in a truly weird, crook-filled ceremony constructed completely from stolen items.

Eventually, however, Neher emerges as an unexpectedly strong female, taking over Forster’s business when he’s captured and successfully converting it into an even more high-toned operation:

While I consider this film to be more of a curio than a masterpiece, it should probably be seen once by film fanatics given its historical significance.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Strong performances by the leading cast

  • Andrej Andrejew’s art direction and sets
  • Fritz Arno Wagner’s cinematography
  • Kurt Weill’s score

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for its historical relevance. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


  • Historically Relevant


One thought on “Threepenny Opera, The (1931)

  1. First viewing. A once-must for its place in cinema history.

    I’ll agree that the film is “more of a curio than a masterpiece”. With its episodic structure and its shaky storyline, it’s largely hard to follow – though, yes, its main thrust does come through as the film progresses. It’s just too bad that more of an effort wasn’t made towards creating a more powerful statement.

    Still, Pabst’s direction keeps things interesting and the look of the film is consistently striking, esp. the production design which, in various settings, gives the film a strong, immensely detailed sense of place.

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