Sunday, 13 March 2011

Comedian Harmonists (1997)

If you had asked me before I viewed the above German film yesterday whether I had seen it before, I would have said 'yes' -- but I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Reaching back into the dim recesses of memory, I am fairly certain that I have seen a documentary about the singing group in question -- a group of hugely popular, world-renowned entertainers, who came together in the late 1920s and whose careers ended as a victims of irrational Nazi mandates. I certainly had not seen this 129-minute reconstruction by director Joseph Vilsmaier of the remarkable group's rise and fall.

A young, impoverished actor and would-be musician named Harry Frommermann decides to put together a German version of the then-famous American a-capella group 'The Revellers'. He advertises for singers, but a pushy meeting with bass-singer Robert Biberti (arriving on his doorstep dressed as a monk, moonlighting from his work as a movie extra) sends off the no-talents queueing to audition; between them they find three other strong singers and a pianist. They hone their unique trademark of using their vocal talents to imitate various musical instruments, so that the audience hears not only some wonderful singing, but also the impression of a full orchestra backing them, and they became a runaway success. Immensely popular both in their homeland and abroad, warning signs begin to emerge as the Nazis consolidate their power.

It happens that two of the group are overtly Jewish and a third is deemed Jewish by the Hitler's controversial racial laws. Their pianist is married to a Jewish woman and a very Aryan woman has converted to Judaism to marry one of them. Despite their broad fan base amongst the German people and even amongst some high-ranking Nazi officials, they are eventually banned from performing in public. This occurs after a triumphant visit to New York from which they willingly returned to Germany (Harry less willingly than the others), thinking that their fans would never allow their persecution. Far too soon the three Jews are forced to flee the country for America, leaving the other three to try to pick up the pieces of their careers. I don't know what actually happened to the six in question in their later lives -- whether they had any subsequent success of not, but I intend to find out.

The director probably took a certain amount of poetic license in telling their story, such as creating an apparently non-existant triangle between Harry, Robert, and a young student for its dramatic effect. However, the movie carefully recreates the period, not stinting on the shadows and paranoia that will overwhelm Germany, mixing these forebodings with some wonderfully delightful re-created musical performances. I was not familiar with any of the lead cast, but they all did an excellent job of becoming the very believable, talented, and human harmonists. The only actor I knew from before was Gunter Lamprecht, here playing the small part of the impresario that gave the group their name (based on their comic bits of stage-business); he took the lead in the fantastic 1980 German TV series "Berlin Alexanderplatz" which also dealt with the fraught Germany of the past,

The film is not perfect and contains certain anachronisms (for example, the US armed forces were still segregated in those bad old days), but its heart is well and truly in the right place. If the group's final concert and their 'auf wiedersehen' song seems remarkably reminiscent of the Von Trapps' departure in the "Sound of Music", it still creates the necessary teary, chokey response in the viewer. On balance, this is a remarkably involving and largely enjoyable film about some legendary entertainers and I can highly recommend it.
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