The Threepenny Opera (1931 film)

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The Threepenny Opera
Directed by G. W. Pabst
Produced by Seymour Nebenzal
Written by Béla Balázs
Leo Lania
Ladislaus Vajda
Based on Die Dreigroschenoper (stage play with music, 1928) by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Starring Rudolf Forster
Margo Lion
Carola Neher
Lotte Lenya
Reinhold Schünzel
Music by Kurt Weill
Cinematography Fritz Arno Wagner
Edited by Hans Oser (German version)
Henri Rust (French version)
Distributed by Nero-Film
Tobis Filmkunst
Warner Bros.
Release date
  • 19 February 1931 (1931-02-19) (Germany)
  • 17 May 1931 (1931-05-17) (US)
Running time
117 minutes (German version)[1]
107 minutes (French version)
Country Germany
Language German- and French-language versions

The Threepenny Opera (German: Die 3 Groschen-Oper) is a 1931 German musical film directed by G. W. Pabst. It was produced by Seymour Nebenzal's Nero-Film for Tonbild-Syndikat AG (Tobis), Berlin and Warner Bros. Pictures GmbH, Berlin. The film is loosely based on the 1928 musical theatre success The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. As was usual in the early sound film era, Pabst also directed a French language version of the film, L'Opéra de quat'sous, with some variation of plot details (the French title literally translates as "the four penny opera"). A planned English version was not made. The two existing versions were released by The Criterion Collection on home video.

The Threepenny Opera differs in significant respects from the play and the internal timeline is somewhat vague. The whole of society is presented as corrupt in one form or another. Only some of the songs from the play are used, in a different order.


In late-Victorian London, Mackie Messer ("Mack the Knife") is a gang boss whose lover is Jenny, a whore in a brothel on Turnmill Street (Turnbridge in the film). On first seeing Polly Peachum, however, he persuades her to marry him. His gang steals the props needed for the wedding, which is attended by Tiger Brown, Mackie's old comrade-in-arms in India who is now Chief of Police and about to oversee a procession through the city by the queen.

Polly's father controls the city's beggars and is furious at losing his daughter to a rival criminal. Visiting Brown, he denounces Mackie as a murderer and threatens to disrupt the queen's procession with a protest march of beggars if Mackie is not caught. Tipped off by Brown to lie low, Mackie goes to the brothel, where the jealous Jenny betrays his presence to the police. After a dramatic rooftop escape, he is arrested and imprisoned.

Meanwhile, Polly buys a bank and runs it with Mackie's henchmen, making him a bank director. This causes a change of heart in her parents. Her father tries to stop the protest march but fails, and the procession turns into a battle between beggars and police. Jenny visits the prison and, by promising her favours to the jailer, allows Mackie to escape. He makes his way to the bank, where he discovers his new status. Peachum and Brown, whose careers are both ruined by the demonstration, also come to the bank and agree to join forces. Banking is a safer and more profitable form of crime.


Film director Georg Wilhelm Pabst (right) and actor Albert Préjean (as Mackie Messer) during the filming of L'Opéra de quat'sous (The Threepenny Opera) in 1931
German-language version
Cast notes
French-language version


Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, the playwright and composer of the stage play that the film is based on, were originally hired to adapt the play for film, but Brecht quit in the middle of production, while Weill continued working on the film until he was fired. The two each sued Warner Bros. and the German production company on the basis that sale of the rights stipulated that nothing in the stage production could be changed for the film. Brecht and Weill intended the piece as a satire on capitalism, and claimed that the ideological basis of the story was softened by director G. W. Pabst, who wanted the film to be more entertaining. Brecht was accused of breach of contract and his suit was rejected, but Weill won his suit.[1]

In August 1933, Pabst's film was banned by the Nazis, and the negative and all prints that could be located were destroyed. The film was later reconstructed in 1960 by Thomas Brandon with the assistance of the Museum of Modern Art.[1]


Not all the songs from the stage production were used in the film. Songs that were used include "The Ballad of Mackie Messer", "Love Duet", "Barbara Song", "Is It a Lot I'm Asking?", "The Ballad of the Ship with Fifty Cannons", "The Cannon Song",[1] and "Song of the Insufficiency of Human Endeavor".


The Threepenny Opera was the first film presented at Warner Brothers' new foreign-language theater in New York City.[1]

The versions of the film released in the United States and the United Kingdom were shorter than the 113 minutes of the original German version.[1]


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