Singing Through History

Back in 1993 Disney released Swing Kids, a dead-earnest portrait of rebellious German jazz fans during the Third Reich. This bizarre hybrid (a blend of Footloose and Schindler's List, of Dead Poets Society and The Diary of Anne Frank) pitted big bands against armbands; it was a classic case of high-concept desperation unintentionally turning into sheer surrealist insanity.

Now, six years later (almost to the day), Miramax, a Disney subsidiary, is releasing The Harmonists, a German production that deals with a similar subject, albeit with far greater success than its Hollywood cousin.

Both films are based on real events, but The Harmonists is more specific: It recounts the career of The Comedian Harmonists, a German singing group popular during the decade preceding the rise of Nazism. Director Joseph Vilsmaier was fortunate enough to have as a resource the last remaining Harmonist, Roman Cycowski, who died in Palm Springs just four months ago.

The Comedian Harmonists have no modern equivalent, but they somewhat resemble (for those of you old enough to remember) the Coasters, the fifties group specializing in comic songs that were, despite their "novelty" aspects, musically brilliant and inventive. Like the Coasters, the German group spiced up their act with onstage antics and mildly risque lyrics; their strongest influences appear to have been the very same black musicians from whom the Coasters' art ultimately derived.

At the movie's beginning, we meet Harry Frommermann (Ulrich Noethen), an actor who can't resist introducing humor into everything he does, whether it's appropriate or not. As a result he is, not surprisingly, out of work most of the time.

But Harry sees himself more as a musician than an actor, despite the fact that he can't play an instrument. A huge fan of American pop and jazz, which he gets to hear while flirting with music store clerk Erna Eggstein (Meret Becker), he decides to assemble a vocal group along the lines of The Revellers, the most popular such group in the United States at the time.

After hiring bassist Bob Biberti (Ben Becker), Harry assembles three more singers (Heino Ferch, Heinrich Schafmeister, Max Tidof) and a pianist (Kai Wiesinger) and starts mercilessly rehearsing them in his own syncopated arrangements. After a false start, the group zooms to fame -- a rise that is documented in classic Hollywood fashion, with montages of headlines, champagne glasses, performances, and wild parties.

In the background, however, is the growing menace of Nazism. We know from early on that Harry is Jewish, as are the owners of the music store where the gentile Erna works. But so assimilated are most Jews within the overall culture that we, like the group itself, only gradually discover which of its other members are Jewish. Eventually we learn that the ethnic tally is 50-50.

In 1933 when Hitler comes to power, it's obvious that the group is headed for trouble. Still, in understandable denial, all but Harry convince themselves that the strength of their fan base (which includes Nazi bigwig Julius Streicher) will somehow protect them. Finally in 1934 they are forced to break up, and the Jewish members flee the country.

The political conflict is the most interesting part of the Comedian Harmonist story, but it is too simple and not particularly dramatic. Vilsmaier appears to have too much respect for the truth to goose things up with contrived crises. But he also realizes that the outline of that conflict is insufficient to carry a two-hour film.

As a result he concentrates for most of the film's duration on the group's musical and personal struggles, relegating the Nazi elements to the background until the final third. The primary subplot is the romantic competition between Harry and Bob over Erna's affections. (That the actors portraying Bob and Erna are siblings in real life adds a slightly creepy frisson to their big romantic scene.)

If it's not already apparent, however, most of The Harmonists fits firmly in the tradition of the Hollywood show-biz biopic. Except for the political scenes and a slightly higher level of realism that forbids fake melodrama, it could pass for a 40-year-old Twentieth Century Fox extravaganza.

That's not an insult. The production is lavish and handsome, with beautiful sets and costumes, and Vilsmaier's graceful camera tracks through the action, frequently for a minute or more without a cut. The music is impressive, though it would have been nice to hear more numbers in their entirety.

And Noethen, a stage actor making his screen debut, is a memorable presence. His wild hair and hangdog face have a classic sad-clown look that evokes both Buster Keaton and Roberto Benigni.

The Harmonists.
Directed by Joseph Vilsmaier. Written by Klaus Richter; based on an idea by Juergen Buescher. Starring Ulrich Noethen, Ben Becker, Meret Becker, and Kai Wiesinger.

 
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