Sleeper biopic, ‘The Comedian Harmonists,’ now on Netflix

The original Comedian Harmonists, 1930. From left: Robert Biberti, Erich Collin, Erwin Bootz, Roman Cycowski, Harry Frommermann, Ari Leschnikoff. (Fair use, via Wikipedia. PR image in wide use.)

WASHINGTON, March 29, 2014 — Netflix’ streaming content remains iffy, content-wise, for serious movie buffs. But there are occasional pleasant surprises as this content grows, such as the recent availability of “The Comedian Harmonists” via Netflix’ streaming service. The film is a brilliantly entertaining and moving meditation on music and entertainment, a tale that unfolds as the arts find themselves entangled with a dark period of contemporary political history.

Also marketed under the title of “The Harmonists,” this 1997-1999 German-Austrian film never found wide release in the U.S. despite attracting considerable notice in Europe where it received a number of awards. It was eventually released on DVD in 2002. But who in this country, aside from the usual cadre of film buffs in New York and Los Angeles, ever knew it was available; let alone the nature of its unique and quite-timely subject matter?

Happily, Netflix has given us the chance to rectify this situation. “The Comedian Harmonists” is a marvelously creative, thoughtfully crafted, adult-oriented musical biopic, the kind we rarely get to see in 21st century movie palaces. Loaded with character, personality, and attention to period detail, the film charts the rise and fall of a unique German vocal ensemble in the years leading up to–and just after–the Nazis’ rise to power.

The original, real-life Comedian Harmonists were a German-based sextet (five singers and a pianist) who appeared seemingly from nowhere, circa 1927, to become wildly popular entertainers during the waning years of the Weimar Republic.

Listen to this vintage YouTube video recording of the actual sextet, singing Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” and you’ll learn the reason why:

The film’s emotional story arc traces the Harmonists’ fumbling, uncertain origins to their widespread international popularity and ultimately to their tragic but almost pre-determined defeat by Hitler and his unchallenged Nazi juggernaut. But the film’s message is subtle at first and not immediately apparent.

In its early innings, “The Harmonists” plays like a standard show-biz biopic. We meet the founder of the group, Harry Frommermann (Ulrich Noethen), who in 1927 chances to hear a recording made by a black American jazz group named the Revellers. Entranced by the beauty of their close, jazzy harmony, he decides to launch a German vocal ensemble that would style their repertoire of popular songs in a similar style, occasionally throwing in bits of loopy stage business and special effects just for fun.

Here’s an example, via YouTube, taken from the ensemble’s bag of musical tricks and “instrumental” special effects, as they sing their unique version of Johann Strauss” “Perpetuum Mobile”:

Harry’s dream vocal ensemble finds it slow going at first, occasionally but predictably complicated by the musical and stylistic spats and quarrels that spare few popular music ensembles. Even so, once the brash, confident Robert Biberti (Ben Becker) joins with Harry, the duo discovers other likeminded recruits, leading to their final configuration and ultimately to their success.

The final ensemble consisted of Frommermann (a “tenor buffo,” a high, flexible who could also pull off instrumental effects), Biberti, an authoritative bass, first tenor “Ari” Leschnikoff, second tenor Erich Collin, baritone Roman Cycowski, and pianist-accompanist Erwin Bootz.

Neither Germany nor Europe had heard anything like this new ensemble that eventually dubbed itself “The Comedian Harmonists” a title that not only referred to their preferred singing style but also to their stage entertainment approach. They tended to keep the proceedings light and lively, which engaged happy audiences from all social strata.

Here’s another YouTube example of the Comedian Harmonists in action (1931). The editing of the film excerpt leaves something to be desired, but the audio is quite good:

Given Germany’s miserable fiscal and social situation after that country’s defeat in the First World War, the Comedian Harmonists likely offered to German and European audiences alike a light, positive, welcome and entertaining respite to the daily misery of life, much as the uplifting films of Shirley Temple did for downtrodden and broke Americans during the Great Depression.

The ensemble’s seamless and never duplicated style went beyond the relative rigidity of American-style barbershop quartet harmony, adding elements of novelty and surprise into the mix. They were famously adept at moving one soloist or another into the fore and then back into the fabric of the group, much as instruments in a jazz sextet get solo shots after the main tune’s initial exposition.

The singers also developed a vast and varied repertoire, ranging from smart and hip American hits to unusual stylizations of German folk music and popular hits, to anything else that caught their fancy. “Eclectic” is the word we use now, and that’s certainly the kind of output the Comedian Harmonists delivered to their delighted fans.

Unfortunately, from a political standpoint, half the ensemble’s membership were Jews, including Harry Frommermann. Given the time period, you can see where this is heading. Despite the fact that even a surprising number of Nazi higher-ups loved the Harmonists, Hitler and his thugocracy eventually began to crack down on the group, first forcing them to slice songs of Jewish composers from their repertoire and eventually banning the group entirely in 1934 when its Jewish members—and the Nazis—finally had had enough of one another.

Roman Cycowski (Heino Ferch), like Frommermann, another of the Harmonists’ Jewish members, declares “No power on earth can force me to sing in this country again.” Frommermann agrees and together, they sing a final, valedictory concert before a glittering audience of their fans. Their farewell song is available via the following clip taken from the 1997-1999 film but with the sound track sung by the original Comedian Harmonists (broken link updated):

Having remembered their earlier success during their American tour, the three Jewish Harmonists attempt to re-establish groups modeled on the original with two of them (including Frommermann) crossing the Atlantic once again eventually to become U.S. citizens, while the other wanders further into his native Eastern Europe.

Likewise, the Harmonists’ three non-Jewish members attempt to do the same on their home turf. But in the end, none of these groups achieve anything near the success of the original model. History has already passed them by and things will never again be the same, as Hitler’s war and genocide machines quickly rev into high gear, launching the catastrophe known as the Second World War.

Of course, this film would never have been successful if it dwelled only on politics, success and failure. The ensemble’s story also encompasses their personal lives and loves, with particular emphasis on Harry’s complicated relationship with an attractive Gentile girl named Erna (Meret Becker) who also carries a torch for Harry.

One unusual element of this film initially caught this writer off-guard. As one might imagine when dealing with a film about a touring musical group, there are plenty of musical interludes in this movie. The first one occurs ad lib in a Berlin watering hole as the singers begin to discover each other’s musical skills. But in this scene, the singing somehow seemed a bit fake…wait a minute…the actors are lip-synching!

Far from cheating and cheapening their product, however, it gradually became clear that the filmmakers were actually up to something wonderful. The actors were lip-synching. But they were lip-synching the real Comedian Harmonists, whose original recordings, transformed by the magic of late 20th century acoustical engineering techniques and electronics, had an almost contemporary presence, transforming the entire product into something that seemed almost more real than reality itself.

This clever inter-cutting of the old with the new turned out to be one of this film’s true master strokes, providing us with not only a richly detailed and deeply moving story line, but also bringing us the actual music that made the Harmonists famous from the start.

That music, that style, that atmosphere is very much the real deal in this film, aurally analogous to the virtually seamless historical film intercutting effects accomplished by Woody Allen in his vastly underrated film “Zelig.” (In fact, “Harmonists” employs a similar technique to recreate the ensemble’s performance on a U.S. aircraft carrier in New York Harbor in the 1930s.) It’s all part and parcel of what makes “The Comedian Harmonists” the quiet yet forceful success that it is.

While “The Comedian Harmonists” is not a documentary, the atmosphere it creates makes it feel like one at times, although in a good way. Surely, some of the personal drama and conflict is punched up a bit for effect, something a good play or film is almost compelled to do to keep the audience interested. But the essence of this moral tale never goes so far as to lose its sense of authenticity, which is another key to its impressive success.

The film ends with a rolling epilogue, a most welcome finale bringing us up to date on the later and not always successful lives of all six Harmonists. We won’t give away the details. But this thoughtful little touch–a detail the filmmakers could easily have dispensed with—gives us a sense of closure, a genuine resolution, of sorts, with regard to the six interesting people we’ve gotten to know in an intimate way throughout the course of this fascinating and moving film.

Although this film dates from the end of the 20th century—a time that seems already to have receded into the distant pre-Great Recession, pre-Obamanation past—it offers us a perhaps unintended and almost eerie historical lesson about what to happen to the people of almost any nation who fail to notice the signs of creeping oppression and intolerance or who try to explain it away.

If left unchecked, such institutionalized intolerance and disregard for the beliefs of others—both on the part of government and elsewhere—leads inevitably to a tragic and often violent endgame. The fate of the Comedian Harmonists offers us one such chilling example.

Americans have typically looked back on Germany’s Nazi Era with both horror and relief, in the sense that yes, it was a terrible moment in history but such a thing could never happen here. Yet in our current economic post-apocalypse we are already witnessing the rise of such intolerant and potentially violent forces here, particularly in the halls of our Federal government that now routinely violates the laws and freedoms it is sworn to defend.

The unexpected and unintended lesson “The Comedian Harmonists” offers us is this: We can sit back, like the majority of good honest German people in the 1930s, and watch such dark forces to grow. Or, like Roman Cycowski, we can refuse to sing that dark and brutal song again.

“The Comedian Harmonists” (aka “The Harmonists”), a Miramax film directed by Joseph Vilsmaier (1999). Available on DVD: 2002.

Available via Netflix streaming video: R-rated.

Running time: 2 hours and 4 minutes.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17