Video Virgil: The Harmonists
A couple of years ago I had the privilege of being guided through a Berlin record shop by the eminent jazz musician Sigi Busch. With a kindly didactic air, he urged me to buy a 3-CD box called Comedian Harmonists: Mein kleiner grüner Kaktus. At the time my ignorance of all things German was sufficiently great that I did not realize I had acquired a gem. (It didn't help the box had no liner notes.)
Aber jetzt, Sigi, sehe ich den Licht! My language skills may still be in the dark, but about the Comedian Harmonists I have seen the light. Founded in 1928 by a down-and-out baritone named Harry Frommermann, this all-male close-harmony sextet blossomed in the 30s, then slowly withered under the stifling cultural policies of the Third Reich. Three of the six were Jewish, and much of their material was by Jewish songwriters, so even though their immense popularity protected them for a while, they eventually split up, some to bitter exile and others to the dead end of official Nazi "folk music."
For a sprightly, touching telling of this tale, see The Harmonists (1997), a fine small film directed by Joseph Vilsmaier, best known the US for his grim but riveting Stalingrad (1993) (definitely not the Hollywood war treatment). If you share my (now jettisoned) prejudice that most German films are excessively marinated in angst, The Harmonists will cure you. It's not best music flick I've seen, and there are quite a few formulaic moments. But what's fascinating is how this German production avoids the truly tired formulas of Anglo-American films about the same period. In particular, the ever-so-Ayran bass, Robert Biberti (Ben Becker), is beautifully drawn, without an iota of the usual caricature.
If Americans had made this movie, the focus would have been on the group's ethnic diversity: three Jews (one from Poland), one Bulgarian, and two Germans coming together in perfect harmony, only to be destroyed by evil of racism. True enough, but wisely The Harmonists focuses less on the obvious political lesson than on the innocent, antic spirit of these young fellows as they cavort their way to the edge of the abyss. Let me put it this way: If you loved Life is Beautiful, then you'll probably like The Harmonists, and not only because the actor playing Harry (Ulrich Nöthen) looks like Roberto Begnini.
For more on the Comedian Harmonists, check out this website.