THE HARMONISTS (COMEDIAN HARMONISTS) (Germany,1997) *** 1/2
In the aftermath of World War II, German film, like much else, lay in ruins and (always with exceptions) was undistinguished. In the 1960s, partly influenced by the success of the French New Wave, there was a rebirth of truly creative, high-quality, audacious productions, loosely labeled The New German Cinema or The Young German Cinema (Kluge, Fassbinder, Herzog, many others).But in more recent years (always with exceptions) there has been a paucity of such films, mostly because the German public ignored the avant-garde in favor of commercial movies, most of them American.
The not-strictly-commercial exceptions that found a public in Germany and abroad have often dealt with the Nazi era, its preludes and aftermaths. They are often fact-based too. The Harmonists fills that bill --with a twist Its focus is a group of musical performers, their rise and not exactly their fall --since this would imply artistic disintegration--but their dissolution within a barbaric political climate.
The Harmonists embraces the years from late 1927, during the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) , through the mid-1930s, during Hitler's Third Reich. Cinephiles may be glad to learn that the Weimar Republic's first President was a socialist named Ebert, not Roger but Friedrich. It was time of all imaginable turmoil, social, political, of mass unemployment, the newly rich and the many newly poor. It was also a time of amazing creativity in the arts, including the popular ones (see the movie Cabaret). And a time of night life, daring sexuality, licentiousness and excitement that, for a while made Berlin the capital of Europe.
The movie tells, with some inventions and poetic licenses, the "true" story of a singing/performing ensemble which became a huge hit in Germany, abroad too, and which has had a stage and concert revival of late in Germany and the USA.
Among the innumerable, work-seeking starving artists is Harry Frommermann, who is Jewish. This talented, despondent man reacts to the suggestions of Mr. Levy, an agent, with "I'm not an actor, I'm a musician." And it is as a musician that he has a revelation on his Road to Damascus, so to speak. He hears a recording by a black American group, The Revelers, and a bulb lights up in his head. Harry will try a German version of that group. He places a newspaper ad, selects five candidates (a pianist and four singers, including a wonderful Bulgarian singing waiter), and forms an ensemble which delivers German and American pop tunes in lively, precise, harmonious and comical ways full of double-entendres and rakish allusions. (They even have to explain to their Bulgarian member what "a growing asparagus" stands for).
Call it an a capella group or a Teutonic variant of a barbershop quintet. Someone eventually has the bright notion of baptizing it, in English --except for the article-- Die Comedian Harmonists.
The film begins in 1935 Berlin, as the Harmonists, at the peak of their fame, elegant in formal clothes, sing on-stage the hit "Veronika" in a version which includes one real instrument ,the piano, and several others which the group imitates beautifully.
Then comes a flashback to December 1927, Harry's vision, the formation of the group, their rehearsals, struggles, arguments, dissensions, tensions and all else that leads to their acquiring their Harmonist identity. They rehearse for six months, in sequences that are fascinating windows into musicality, tactics and personalities. After a desperate deadline of an extra month, the finally hit on the right formula.
Three of the six happen to be Jews. Among the others, the most forceful is big, blond Robert Biberti. When push come to shove after a critical audition by the six then-nobodies, it is Robert who brazenly states to a (presumably Jewish) impresario that he, Biberti, represents the financial interests of the group. He ups the ante of the salary with imaginary offers. The impresario is not taken in, but plays along. He knows talent when he sees it. Throughout, Bob-the-Aryan's attitude can only be described as chutzpah.
The film is most adroitly edited, knowing exactly when to cut, never allowing its scenes to overstay their welcome. Words like lightness, humor, effervescence are fully operative here. The singers are excellent. In reality, they do perfect lip-synching to the sounds of original 78 rpm recordings, magically digitalized. It will fool you.
Past the early flashbacks the story continues with the Harmonists' skyrocketing to fame, to private lives and political situations. Bob, shown living in a palatial suite, phones the concierge and asks for a call-girl in the matter-of-fact way you ask for breakfast to be brought up. " Not too voluptuous. She must look like a student trying to make extra money." But then, there is another, real student, Erna. She works at the music store of a charming old Jewish couple who remind me a bit of the couple in Casablanca.
Harry loves Erna. Erna seems sweet on Harry. Then Bob too falls for Erna. And so on. There are ambiguities about Erna, as in many aspects of the film. To what extent the details are truly biographical, I cannot tell. However, rather than intrude into the story, those relationships, and others, flesh it out and humanize the Harmonists. (The amusing fact is that the actors who play Bob and Erna are brother and sister in real life).
What intrudes, and with a horrible vengeance, is Adolf Hitler and his minions. The now successful Harmonists have to face anti-Semitism, which raises its monstrous head for the first time at a swimming pool. No doubt this is a filmic simplification since awareness of the problem must have existed already --especially in artistic circles with their huge numbers of German Jews.
On the other hand, the shock becomes a quake when Bob and Harry arrive at the music store as S.A. men (Brownshirts) break the glass (a prelude to the 1938 Kristallnacht), tear up the place, abuse verbally and bodily Erna and her bosses. The owners cannot understand this. They are Germans and patriots, love the country, in the late war lost a son---all this will pass, no doubt.
The thread of Jewish incomprehension runs throughout the film. I recently saw the Spielberg-produced, Oscar-winning documentary The Last Days, about Hungarian Jews. Like the German Jews, the Hungarians were so "assimilated" that they could not imagine anyone harming them during World War II, and hardly believed the rumors of death camps. Until their turn came.
In The Harmonists, no anti-Semitism is shown within the group and their circle. In fact, one of the men's girls converts to Judaism in order to marry him. This gives rise to a wedding with klezmer music, enormous brio, and none of the satire that many such weddings use in American movies.
During Hitler's early reign, Bob and Harry are summoned to the Nazi Artists' Chamber. A high official points out to them that "half of your people are non-Aryan," but, given their admirers in high places he'll try to find a solution. Then he asks them to autograph one of their records. Soon after comes the request to the group to go to the palatial home of Gauleiter Julius Streicher, as rabid a Jew-hater as any, if not more (he was hanged after the Nuremberg War Crimes trials). There, as the group also sang folk songs, for the host of uniformed Party guests Streicher requests Im Einem Kuhle Grunde, with lyrics by the great Romantic poet Eichendorff. Harry gets physically sick, the others say: "We'd be grateful if we don't have to sing this particular song."
I confess that I am baffled as I don't know what is the upsetting reference here, or how historically true this Streicher "invitation" was.
Tension mounts for Jews. An nvitation to sing in America arrives. On the USS Saratoga and elsewhere the group gives rousing renderings of American songs and marches. The New World is like Paradise. Most Harmonists are tempted to stay there, but return to Germany, where the audience at a sold-out concert is chockfull of Nazi uniforms. A surprise (to all) announcement is made: the group is now banned, after this last performance. Performers and audience are dumbfounded. The group delivers one of their trademark "serious" songs (about a bit of heaven, somewhere, sometime).Moved, the public mobs them. True ? Invented?
The Jewish members go to America. It's an historically incorrect, simplified
finale, but I suppose that their real peregrinations would require another
half-hour of film. Not that it is long at 114 minutes. There are no dead
moments, no dull scenes. The movie has a lot more than meets the eye. And
what meets the ear is enchanting. Please don't miss it!