During the filming of the The Threepenny Opera (Die Dresigroschenoper or Die 3 Groschen-Oper, 1931), a celebrated lawsuit was initiated by the author, Bertolt Brecht, and the music composer, Kurt Weill, against the production. Brecht had very successfully produced his own play previously in Berlin and was not about to allow G. W. Pabst to make his substantially altered screen version. Brecht lost the case, but unlike most such instances, the film’s alterations did not destroy the power of the artists’ original work. Pabst and his excellent cameraman used sophisticated shooting angles and swirls of dust and smoke to create a very moody, well-felt atmosphere for the players, most of whom were the original stage actors. For once Pabst, the “realist” of The Joyless Street and The Love of Jeanne Ney fame, chose Expressionistic filming devices to elicit the contrasts between the Edwardian bourgeois and the Soho slums.
The plot, set in an imaginary, fantastic London at the turn of the century, features three rogues – Mackie Messer, a leader of a gang of criminals, Peachum, the beggar king, and Tiger Brown, the police commissioner. Peachum, furious over Mackie’s impetuous engagement with his daughter, threatens to disrupt the imminent coronation of the Queen with a beggar’s demonstration, unless the police commissioner sends Mackie to the gallows. This sets the stage for Brecht’s vigorous plot machinations as well as his pungent comments on the inherent corruption of a capitalistic society.
Kurt Weill’s songs, which were reputedly based on a few notes whistled by Brecht, were the very pivots of the play and gave it much of its impact. The film is more cinematically motivated, i.e. its movement through time id dependent more on purely cinematic values. Thus the music appears less fundamental in the film than in the play. It might be added that Kurt Weill, after the court case was over, cooperated with Pabst and adapted his songs to the exigencies of the screen.
This film, Pabst’s first completely successful integration of image and sound, is also noted for the create use of the illusionary possibilities of photographing through glass to enhance the bizarre character of interiors. The numerous screens of glass in the café scene (Mackie’s courtship) are designed to transform the crowded and smoking room into a confusing maze. Another time, Mackie is shot entering a brothel behind a glass partition, which gives him a rather provocative halo.
The film version . . . differed much from the play, but on the whole preserved its social satire, genuine lyricism and revolutionary colouring.
– Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler