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The Harmonists

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 26 March 1999

  Directed by Joseph Vilsmaier.

Starring Ben Becker, Heino Ferch, Ulrich Noethen,
Heinrich Schafmeister, Max Tidof, Kei Wiesinger,
Meret Becker, Katja Riemann, Dana Vávrová,
Susi Nicoletti, and Noemi Fischer.

Written by Klaus Richter,
based on an idea by Juergen Buescher.

But for the fact that the seductively comic musical group that is poignantly depicted in this truth-based story predated the rise of the National Socialist Party in Germany by a handful of years, these five talented melody makers and their agile pianist would have probably never existed. Thank goodness for small favors as the world was graced by the extraordinary talents of this world-renowned sextet. But the eventual rise of Hitler and his anti-semitic government not only would destroy the lives of six million Jews, but would also humiliatingly consume this film’s main subjects -- and their loved ones -- in a horribly sad, career-ending and life-altering, decision.

This remarkable, albeit slightly draggy, tale begins with the popular Comedian Harmonists performing before a rapturous crowd of upper class patrons, providing a glimpse of this fabulous group’s success before retreating back to the end of 1927 -- to Berlin, a theatrical magnet where down-on-his luck drama student Harry Frommermann (Ulrich Noethern) looks for guidance, often at the grave of his dead parents, in a nation filled with three million unemployed souls. While dining on sunflower seeds plucked from the cage of his pet parrot, the malnourished Harry is inspired by a recording of the American a capella group ‘The Revelers,’ courtesy of Erna (Meret Becker), a student working at a nearby music store and the object of Harry’s romantic daydreams. After placing an advertisement for a "unique performing ensemble," bombastic cigar-puffing baritone Robert Biberti (Ben Becker) bullies his way through the audition process and immediately forms with Harry the core of the legendary ensemble and a she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not relationship with Erna that provides a refreshing spirit lift at the film’s end.

Robert’s connections in the local music community allows for the decisive birth of this nearly mythic troupe, including Ari Leschnikoff (Max Tidof), a mustachioed waiter whose tenor voice serenades lovely frauleins at a small ristorante; Erich Collin (Heinrich Schafmeister), a monacled, educated dandy who favors smoking his cigarettes with a stylish holder; Roman Cycowski (Heino Ferch), a Polish émigré and former opera singer whose uplifting marriage to Mary (Katja Riemann), a convert to Judaism, raises the traditional chairs in futile hopes of better times ahead; and the chronically late Erwin Bootz (Kai Wiesinger), the group’s 19-year-old piano player.

Months of practice takes its toll on the group. Nerves are frayed as their initial presentation before a successful impresario suggest their act is more suited to a funeral parlor. But doubts are overcome and their first concert is a rousing success. The rest, as they say, is history.

Joseph Vilsmaier, wearing three hats -- four if you count his wife, Dana Vávrová, who appears in the film as Erwin Bootz’s wife -- as director, executive producer, and director of photography, evokes the moral frustrations and international triumphs of these exceptionally talented songsters and the ugly brick wall of Nazi Germany they are thrown against when the three Jewish Harmonists are ordered to cease their public association with the act. At times, the film is reminiscent of a Marx Brothers comedy, only to have the madcap antics crushed by the cruel, dignity-stealing actions of stone-faced officials of the Third Reich. The situation borders on the surreal as one puppet at the oppressive cultural association delivers a typically offensive Nazi demand on the group to Harry and Robert, only to ask for an autograph for his nephew as the pair struggle uncomfortably to remove themselves from the stench of bad tidings. The conversation here was translated (the film, of course, is in German, with English subtitles) as "Maybe we can find a solution," insinuating a quest for compromise, but ultimately inferring the portentous answer found in Hitler’s Final Solution.

The emotionally-driven characters, finely drawn by screenwriter Klaus Richter, fit the actors like a glove, in much the same way as That Thing You Do (1996) so aptly highlighted the rise and fall of a faux foursome. There’s also a taste of Life Is Beautiful in portraying the rise of the genocidal tendencies of Nazism. Production designer Rolf Zehetbauer very effectively summons up the period, particularly an early 1930s visit by the performers to New York City as the boys sing for NBC Radio in front of the USS Saratoga. His authentic re-creation of a steaming and steamy Berlin (including a bordello and luxury hotel) are obviously an ode to 1972’s Cabaret , on which he served as an art director.

The destiny of the Comedian Harmonists takes a fateful turn as the group disbands, split by forces beyond belief and understanding, after a final concert in Munich and the adulation of their myriad fans. Their popularity continues long after their lives have faded (The remaining survivor, Roman Cycowski, who became a cantor in San Francisco, passed away last November.), but their recordings, this film, and a lengthy documentary by Eberhard Fechner keeps their memories and harmonies alive. The Harmonists reveals for you that life is full of joy and pain. Here’s a show you shouldn’t miss.

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