It's a rare thing when a feature film and a documentary on the same subject match one another in quality and interest, and this is one of those occasions. The Harmonists, a charming if sentimental German hit, is currently in residence at Lagoon Cinema, and its Hollywood-style manipulations stand up fairly well when compared with The Comedian Harmonists, a three-hour documentary that plays at U Film Society for two days next week (Wednesday and Thursday, April 14 and 15).
Both films are about an unusual and once highly popular vocal sextet that happened to have three Jewish and three Gentile members. In their tight harmonies and complex arrangements, the Comedian Harmonists borrowed a little from a popular American group of the 1920s, but they also sought Übersetzen im deutschen Geschmack--that is, translation to German taste. And, as the documentary reveals even more fully than the fictionalized film, the definition of "German taste" came to be a frightening obstacle to their survival.
Despite its rudimentary talking-heads-with-old-photos style, the 1976 documentary explores the issue most dramatically. Here was a group so popular throughout Europe that when its members showed up for a concert in Copenhagen, they discovered no publicity posters-- "because it was already all sold out," as one of the aging singers recalls. Blending extra-sweet melodies with alternately comical or jazzy arrangements, the group managed to sell records, fill concert halls, make movie shorts, and even testify for products all throughout the late-1920s inflation scare and the 1930s ascent of Nazism. They were singing for their supper and getting it, while many others were starving or being shoved from the table. And then came Hitler, and suddenly popularity wasn't worth a pfennig. By government edict, the Jewish members couldn't perform. Never mind: They went to America and survived, mostly in comfort.
Directed by Eduoard Fechner, the documentary features extended chats with four surviving members, including the financial manager, Biberti, and the flirtatious Bulgarian tenor, Lesch. Revealingly, these men fit their actor/character counterparts in The Harmonists: In 1976 Biberti is still kind of smug, still devoted to music, and still the kind of person who can rationalize a move back to Germany at the height of Hitlerism even though his colleagues were endangered there. Lesch, struggling on a pension back in Bulgaria, is a charmer and clearly Fechner's favorite. Lesch's German is slow but sure, and his opinions are honest and strongly stated.
Both movies pose the question of why these basically decent and mostly apolitical men didn't catch wind of disaster sooner, and the documentary helps explain their innocence and evasions most clearly. But it also piles on more of the music, which itself helps to explain the distance between the group's musical feeling and the political/cultural environment that ultimately rejected it. Kind of like Bing Crosby meets Bobby McFerrin at a barbershop quartet convention, the Harmonists' music retains a bittersweet yearning that's nearly irresistible, whatever your musical taste. The songs are about Veronika in spring, or a cactus on a lover's window, but the subtext is an idealized world where pure beauty and mildly naughty, coyly poetic yearnings are still acceptable--a world that really isn't part of the twentieth century.
The Comedian Harmonists screens at U Film Society on Wednesday and Thursday, April 14 and 15, at 7:15 p.m.; call (612) 627-4430. The Harmonists is playing at Lagoon Cinema.
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