Three Penny Opera
Brecht vs. Pabst

by Jan-Christopher Horak

from Jump Cut, no. 15, 1977, pp. 17, 20-21
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2004

The contrast was striking. Bertolt Brecht’s Three Penny Opera was an anarchistic vision of urban society, tempered by a sharp cynical wit, and an episodic form that had its roots in the cabaret. G.H. Pabst’s less cynical film version, on the other hand, presented a dramatically unified narrative, enhanced by realistic studio sets, and an expressive use of light and shadow. Critics regarded it as a typical case of an insensitive, bourgeois-capitalist film industry draining an avant-garde work of its revolutionary content (and form) for the sake of profit. Brecht sued the producers but lost, proving once again to B.B.’s supporters the power of private investment over public interest, capital over art.

The previously unknown quantity in this controversy, though, has been Brecht’s treatment of the proposed film version. In it, Brecht attempted to politicize his opera in order to clarify certain ideological intentions that had been misread by the public. First, by eliminating a number of characters and scenes, he hoped to unify the narrative while mitigating the opera’s slightly decadent atmosphere. Second, Brecht substituted a more revolutionary finale for the patently gratuitous ending of his original, thereby making overt the equation between criminals and capitalists. It becomes clear, then, that a number of structural as well as textual changes, previously blamed on Pabst, were in fact first introduced in Brecht’s treatment, only to be refined and clarified in the final film.

Furthermore, one must consider certain other aspects.

  1. Many of Brecht’s plays are not, programatically Marxist.
  2. Pabst’s leftist sensibilities as manifested in the plot of the film version are at least as politically committed as Brecht’s decidedly modernist opera.(1)
  3. The acting style remains Brechtian, due largely to the influence of Lotte Lenya, Carola Neher, and others from the stage production.

The issues surrounding the THREE PENNY OPERA, then, are much more complex then they seem at first.

According to Lotte Lenya, Brecht first became interested in adapting John Gay’s 18th century satire, The Beggar’s Opera, after his co-worker, Elizabeth Hauptmann, translated the work into German. Working with the composer, Kurt Weill, Brecht fashioned an “opera” more akin to the Berlin cabaret than to the legacy of Mozart or Wagner. For his adaptation, Brecht moved the action from the London of Gay’s time to the late Victorian period, an era closer to Brecht’s own experience. As a result, too, Brecht made the bourgeoisie, rather than the aristocracy, the object of his satire. Brecht’s songs appeared in almost every scene, usually set apart from the action by special lighting, with the actors simply stepping stage front.(2) The songs commented on the action rather than developing from it. As Brecht put it,

“Nothing is more revolting than when an actor pretends not to notice that he (sic) has left the level of plain speech and started to sing.”(3)

For a number of songs, Brecht made use of ballads by François Villon. translated by K. L. Ammer in an edition out of print since 1909. As a result, the first Three Penny Opera scandal erupted in May 1929, when Alfred Kerr, the famed Berlin theater critic, accused Brecht of plagiarism. Brecht, in fact, relished such a scandal as a means of thumbing his nose at the pettiness of bourgeois culture. He simply published a note acknowledging the omission but stating that he never worried about such mundane matters. Meanwhile, the opera gained a notorious reputation as a semi-pornographic work.

For months the opera ran on the Berlin stage, while “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” became a popular hit tune. The hedonistic middle classes of the late Weimar Republic. enjoying the first economic upswing in more then 10 years. loved every minute of it. According to Martin Esslin, “his sudden success made Brecht cocky.”(4) The angry young poet of revolutionary verse may have been experiencing a disorientation common to modernist artists. As Irving Howe has noted:

“In the war between modernist culture and bourgeois society ... the middle class has discovered that the fiercest attacks upon its values can be transposed into pleasing entertainments, and the avant-garde writer or artist must confront the one challenge for which he (sic) has not been prepared: the challenge of success. Contemporary society is endlessly assimilative, even if it tames and vulgarizes what it has learned, sometimes foolishly to praise.”(5)

Despite (or because of) its brutal satire of bourgeois values and its intentional vulgarity, calculated to shock well-mannered sensibilities, the opera won critical acclaim. The communist press, on the other hand, most prominently the main organ of the German Communist Party, Die Rote Fahne, attacked the play for its lack of social concreteness.(6)

The dichotomy between Brecht’s modernism and his Marxist commitment was clearly evident. The London underworld, with its cynical prostitutes, petty thieves, confidence men, and corrupt officials, as well as the opera’s amoral and polygamous hero, fascinated audiences instead of repelling them. On the formal level, the fragmented narrative, non-naturalistic acting, ever-present posters, and cabaret atmosphere underscored the modernist and anarchistic content of the opera, including the grim urban setting, the aggressive attack on traditional culture in favor of popular culture, and the disbelief in social order or philosophical unity.

Brecht’s study of Marxism (beginning in 1927) influenced the work, especially with regard to some of the more rhetorical songs, but the opera’s basic cynicism seems to contradict its revolutionary aims. The early Brecht who had written the violently nihilistic “Man Equals Man” and the anarchic “On the Jungle of the Cities” still held sway over the Marxist in him. The opera’s “Song of the Heavy Cannon,” sung by the British Indian Army buddies Mack and Tiger Brown, seems to hark back to the British India setting of “Man Equals Man.”

Brecht was well aware of the problem. On his published notes to the opera he attempted to clarify his intentions: namely, the parallel between

“the lesser duplicities and betrayals, the thievery of the underworld with the more seemingly respectable but crasser and more thoroughgoing iniquities of the upper world.”(7)

The gangster Mack the Knife and the capitalist entrepreneur Peachum were products of the early decadent culture.

During the course of 1929, then, Brecht became much more polemical in his attitude towards theater. He attempted to guard himself against any further misunderstandings by writing didactic works that had their genesis in the notion of Gebrauchskunst, or practical and propagandistic art, It was in June 1930, while producing He Who Says No and The Measures Taken, two of his most austere pieces, that Brecht completed the treatment for the screen version of the THREE PENNY OPERA.

Surprisingly, Brecht’s film treatment, published the same year under the title of Die Beule (The Bruise), deviated substantially from the opera. In an effort to correct the ideological inconsistencies of the opera, Brecht tightened up the narrative by eliminating certain characters and rearranging many of the events. He also drastically reduced the number of songs, virtually eliminated the streetsinger, and included at least one song written specifically for the film.

In Brecht’s original opera, the so-called Beggar-King, Peachum, wants the criminal Macheath (alias Mack the Knife) arrested for eloping with his daughter, Polly. Although the police chief, Tiger Brown, has previously managed to protect Mack (for a fee, of course), Peachum threatens to send his beggars into the streets on the day of the queen’s coronation unless Mack is hanged. The police arrest Mack while he is visiting Jenny, a prostitute and ex-lover, who betrays him for money and out of jealousy. Mack is freed, however, with the help of Lucy, the daughter of Tiger Brown. Finally he is arrested a second time while visiting another prostitute, Sucky Tawdry. Tongue in cheek, Brecht gives his opera an “American happy end” by having Mack saved from hanging in honor of the queen’s coronation. A country estate and life-time pension are thrown in for good measure.

On Brecht’s screen treatment, Macheath is a considerably less promiscuous, thoroughly middle-class thief, who becomes a bank director during the course of the narrative. The struggle between Mack and Peachum is carried out within the framework of capitalist competition: one of Peachum’s beggars reports a robbery committed by Mack’s gang to the police. In retaliation, Mack’s men rob Peachum’s office and beat up one of his beggars. That Mack has seduced Peachum’s daughter only adds insult to injury.

Mack’s improved social standing is reflected most prominently in the revised marriage scene. In the opera, the event is held in an old barn attended by Mack’s gang and Tiger Brown. In the film treatment, the marriage scene is prefaced by a title, “A Social Occasion,” with no less than 150 dignitaries in attendance, including

“the Chief Justice of Drury Lane, two members of the House of Lords, three well-known barristers, a priest from St. Margaret’s, ... Tiger Brown.”(8)

Peachum’s beggars undergo a similar transformation. Whereas in the opera they are characterized as Lumpenproletariat, wretchedly poor and unemployable, in the film treatment they become professional beggars-employees of Peachum’s Beggar Trust. Coming to work in the morning dressed in blue-collar attire, they slip into their work clothes and are thus magically transformed into the pathetic cripples they appear to be. (This scene remains intact in Pabst’s film version.)

Another scene newly conceived for the treatment was the temporary transformation of Drury Lane’s brothels into respectable-looking homes for the queen’s coronation. Brecht describes the removal of all unsavory looking characters as well as the repainting of the facades along the queen’s route, apparently indicating visually capitalism’s attempt to use surface wealth to cover the squalor of the backstreets.

Finally, of major significance is Brecht’s conclusion: Tiger Brown has a dream about the masses overrunning the streets of London with neither police nor tanks an effective counterweapon. It is, of course, a capitalist’s nightmare of a successful proletarian revolution. Because of the dream, Brown (government) and Peachum (corporate power) join forces to free Mack, realizing that the workers are their true enemies. Together they place Peachum’s bruised beggar in the death cell previously occupied by Mack. Thus, Brecht works out a Marxist conception of events by pitting the capitalist employers against the proletarian employees.

In terms of film form, Brecht also had his own ideas. He proposed to divide the film into four major sections, each part being divided into a number of subsections preceded by a written title indicating content—for example, “The Power of the Beggar King.” The Historic Change of Ownership of the National Deposit Bank, or ‘The Ride of the Messengers.” These titles acted as distancing devices much as posters did on the stage. Brecht considered it regrettable that talkies no longer used them.

Brecht’s relocation of Mack’s arrest from the Drury Lane brothel to a picnic in the country also seems to have been motivated by filmic considerations. In a possible tribute to Chaplin (the only filmmaker Brecht ever acknowledged having respected). Hack is arrested after a high-speed car chase: a car full of prostitutes followed by a carload of Keystone-like cops. A number of other car scenes—the gang’s getaway after a robbery end later their respectable arrival at the bank in new limousines—were also incorporated.

On a further attempt to make the film less theatrical, Brecht cut down the role of the streetsinger, who appears frequently in the opera making ironic comments directly to the audience. In the film treatment. the singer appears only once in the first scene, singing his “Ballad of Mack the Knife” to a group of people rather than to the audience. As in Pabst’s film, he is realistically integrated into the narrative.

For the first part of the film, Brecht even developed fairly exact camera directions. Though Pabst shot the first section as suggested, it is clear that the others are unworkable:

“The first section should flow without cuts or jumps. (The face of Polly Peachum is not shown until Macheath sees it.) The second section is crosscut between two connected situations: the lovers’ promenade and the stealing of the bridal trousseau, both photographed differently: one soft and flowing, the other sharp and montage-like. The third section (the marriage) shows single unconnected still lives. The camera finds its motifs, it is sociology.”(9)

Whatever may have happened between Brecht and Pabst (see Lotte Eisner for incomplete details), it is clear that Brecht left the project before a script was completed. So the Marxist screenwriter and critic Bela Balazs was called in to finish the script with Leo Lenya and Ladislaus Vajda.(10)

The finished script, while incorporating some of Brecht’s plot alterations, also includes material from the opera as well as a new ending. Once again Mack is a small-time gangster with middle class aspirations whose polygamy and various liaisons with “professional” women keep him running. The script’s major innovation, however, is the expansion of Polly Peachum’s role. In the final script it is Polly who decides to buy the City Bank after threatening to turn Mack’s whole gang over to the police unless they surrender the loot they have been embezzling during Mack’s sojourn in jail. Mack’s two-bit crooks become bank directors and stock market manipulators under her tightfisted control: “We're through with romanticism, now the seriousness of life begins,” she says. (11)

Peachum and Brown, on the other hand, meet a very different end. The revenge-crazed Peachum is destroyed when his own beggars turn against his. The last shot in the script is held on Peachum as he stumbles off into the distance, a broken and lonely man. Brown also loses his job as police chief after the beggars manage to disrupt the queen’s coronation. Although he was ready to hang Macheath, Brown now joins forces with the thief. Brown buys himself a directorship in the City Bank with the bail money he has salvaged—that is, stolen. As a true bureaucrat, Brown remains indestructible. (This twist would be carried one step further in the film to include Peachum’s fate.)

It can be seen, then, that the scriptwriters critically modified Brecht’s leftist polemics. First, they locate the genesis of the Peachum-Macheath struggle in personal revenge rather than economic competition. Second, by destroying Peachum, the writers suggest a moralistically tinted fate due to character weakness rather than social class.

To the scriptwriter’s credit, it must be noted that they incorporated as much of Brecht’s dialogue as possible, often interpolating dialogue from deleted sections. Brecht not only used street slang effectively, but also anglicisms and idiomatic phrases uncommon to the German language. Thus, the flavor of Brecht’s language was retained in the script as well as in Pabst’s film.

In the finished film, Pabst actually took a step beck toward Brecht’s conception by utilizing many more suggestions from Brecht’s treatment. Thus, Mack’s second wife, Lucy (who had resurfaced in the script) disappeared again. Many of the secondary characters were also eliminated. Having Mack arrested only once, as in Brecht’s treatment further condensed the plot.

Once again, Macheath is a member of the upwardly mobile middle classes - a small-time capitalist. His larceny operation is run like a business, with production schedules and well-kept accounting books; lazy thieves are given the ax. Mack’s whoring is also very businesslike: he is almost arrested because he refuses to cancel his regular Thursday afternoon visit to the brothel.

The ending obviously reflects Pabst’s sympathy for Brecht’s more radical point of view. After the beggars revolt, Peachum allies himself with Mack and Tiger Brown. Peachum has a new business venture, to be financed by the gentleman from the City Bank. Thus, Mack’s rise from small business crook to banking magnate is paralleled by Brown and Peachum’s falls, since both have literally become thieves.

As they sign the contracts in the half-lit bank, the streetsinger’s epilogue (which only appears in Brecht’s treatment) is heard. The atmosphere turns bleak in the last shot, when a dejected mass is seen wandering from darkness under a streetlamp into darkness. Pabst’s lighting underlines the conspiratorial mood, while his last cut establishes a cause-and-effect relationship, thereby reinforcing the dialogue and the streetsinger’s (Brecht’s) final lines:

Peachum: Today I've seen the power of the poor ... your money and my business experience, a mighty business.

Mack: Why do they need us if they are so powerful?

Peachum: They don't know it, but it is us who need than.

Streetsinger’s Voice:
Gathered for the happy ending
all crowd under the same hat.
If good money is quite handy,
Everything ends well for that.
Hinz and Kunz fish muddy waters,
Wish each other dead.
Yet in the end around the table
They share the poor man’s bread
Therefore some live in darkness
And others in light.
We see those who live in the daytime
But not those who live at night.(12)

Another scene in keeping with Brecht’s spirit contains some anti-Nazi sentiment. In the scene, expanded from the script, Peachum incites his beggars to riot. As the frenzied Hitler-like speech continues, Pabst intercuts Peachum’s ever-growing shadow. The expressionistic shadow monster of the “haunted screen” is finally given concrete political context by Pabst. By giving the speech to Peachum, Pabst implies that the power of the Nazis cones from the respectable bourgeoisie rather than the working classes. An astute observation for 1930.

It is in Pabst’s direction of actors, though, that he comes closest to the Brechtian conception of “epic” theater. The dialogue in the film is cut down to the barest minimum, almost silent film standards.(13) The very terseness creates a Brechtian alienation effect, especially when coupled with a deadpan delivery, as in Polly and Mack’s farewell scene. Instead of looking deeply into each other’s eyes and swearing eternal love, as film conventions demand, the actors face the camera. Their lines are delivered in a monotone and their faces remain expressionless. The romanticism of the dialogue is ironically undercut by the unemotional acting, thus “objectifying” the characters. Here the contributions of Brecht’s original cast—Carola Nehar (Polly), Ernst Buch (streetsinger) , Lotte Lenya (Jenny), and Herman Thimig (Vicar)—must not be underestimated.

On terms of formal dramaturgy, though, Pabst’s design stands in opposition to Brecht’s theoretical canons. Pabst’s Reinhardt-like chiaroscuro highlights the many night scenes along the misty Soho waterfront. Pabst’s use of light and shadow for dramatic effect violates Brecht’s conceptions of epic theater. The lighting in most of Brecht’s own productions (if existing stills are an indication) was flat and bright. As Brecht put it:

“How can we playwrights and actors put forth our view of the world in half-darkness? The dim twilight induces sleep.” (14)

At the seam time Brecht’s stage only alludes to locale: a desk suggests an office; a bed, a brothel; and a street sign, an avenue. The sparseness of the set undermines the illusion of reality, producing the desired alienation effect. Pabst’s realistic mise-en-scene and Fritz Arno Wagner’s moving camera, on the other hand, capture actors, background action, and atmospheric details in an ever-changing pattern of complex visual designs. Pabst’s invisible editing further reinforces the spatial and temporal relations implied by the moving camera. Thus, the unbroken flow of images and the realism of the set almost compel the viewers to involve themselves in the drama of the events.

To be sure, Brecht’s intentions are totally opposite. Developing an audience’s involvement in the action is condemned by Brecht, because it results in an emotional rather than an intellectual perception. By fragmenting the narrative, the audience is forced to reconstruct the events and their ideological implications. So goes the theory.

Ironically, while Pabst’s realistic mise-en-scene could not have been further from Brecht’s modernist aesthetics on a formal level, communist critics such as Georg Lukács championed realism over modernism, unity over fragmentation. Lukács, in contrast to the theoretical pronouncements of both Brecht and Eisenstein, believed that only a realistic form could support socialism’s unified worldview. And, as Lukács rightly pointed out, Brecht in his mature works transcended the “over simplified schema” of his didactic period to achieve a synthesis of Aristotelian dramaturgy and agitprop.(15)

I do not mean to suggest that Pabst has qualitatively achieved the same kind of synthesis in his film, but I do think he is moving in that direction. One needs only to compare Brecht’s cynical conclusion to the opera with Pabst’s finale, where—to borrow another phrase from Lukács—the streetsinger’s lines “elevate the personal fates of the characters to the typical.” In Brecht’s opera the characters remain caricatures; in Pabst’s film a certain humanity breaks through. The objectified Brechtian acting within a realistic framework again suggests Brecht’s later synthesis.

Brecht’s opera, as we have seen, is not as ideologically pure as he would have us believe, nor is Pabst’s film as apolitical as Brecht charged. Both works are to be valued in their own right, although to my mind, Pabst’s film is ideologically more correct from a Marxist point of view. One can argue, then, that despite Brecht’s objections to the film, Pabst’s version of THE THREE PENNY OPERA is the most Brechtian film adaptation of Brecht’s work to date.


1. I am taking my definition of modernism from Irving Howe’s Literary Modernism, and Georg Lukács Realism in Our Time. That is I use it in both the philosophical sense (nihilism, anarchism) and in the formal sense as an anti-realist fragmentation of narrative.

2. Willet, John, The Theater of Bertolt Brecht (New York: New Directions, 1968) p. 30.

3. Brecht, Bertolt, Brecht on Theater, trans. by John Willet (New York: Hill & Wang, 1964) p. 46.

4. Esslin, Martin, Brecht—The Man, and His Work (New York: Anchor Books, 1961) p. 36.

5. Howe, Irving, Literary Modernism (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publishers, 1967) p. 24.

6. Esslin, p. 153.

7. Brecht, Bertolt, quoted in Bertolt Brecht by Frederic Ewee (New York: Citadel Press, 1967) p. 175.

8. Brecht, Bertolt, “Die Beule,” in Das Dreigroschenbuch (Frankfurt/Main: Surkamp Verlag, 1973) p. 105. Trans. by J.C. Horak. Book also includes Brecht’s notes, the published opera, as well as contemporary reviews.

9. Ibid. p. 105.

10. Eisner, Lotte, The Haunted Screen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969) p. 344.

11. Manvell, Roger, Masterworks of the German Cinema (New York: Harper & Row, 1973). Includes THREE PENNY OPERA screenplay as quoted from the film. In the screenplay the scene appears in a similar form, p. 247.

12. Ibid, p. 276. Pabst’s new ending has been quoted in notes.

13. Ibid, p. 164.

14. Willet, p. 161.

15. Lukács, Georg, Realism in Our Time (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1971) p. 88-89.

16. Ibid, p. 101.