Wednesday, March 24, 1999

The Harmonists

Posted By on Wed, Mar 24, 1999 at 12:00 AM

All totalitarian regimes have one element in common – control – and, more often than not, that control extends beyond the political arena. As museum shows detailing the Nazi idea of "degenerate art" illustrate, the National Socialists were absolute totalitarians, anxious to have the German population goose-step with the party in all aspects of their lives, including what paintings they saw, books they read and records they played. The new German film, The Harmonists, deals with this aspect of the Nazi regime and clearly links the directive for aesthetic "purity" to anti-Semitic racial laws.

Written by Klaus Richter and directed by Joseph Vilsmaier, The Harmonists is an average film about a remarkable real-life subject. The Comedian Harmonists, five singers and a pianist, were German superstars for their complex vocal arrangements of popular and traditional songs, as well as for the cheeky humor that characterized their elaborate stage performances.

What mattered to Harry Frommermann (Ulrich Noethen) when he formed the group in 1927 was musical ability. But what concerned the Nazis was not only that the Harmonists’ repertoire included works by banned Jewish composers – although not mentioned, this extended to black Americans including Duke Ellington and the group’s inspiration, the Revelers – but that three of the group’s members were Jewish.

The Comedian Harmonists naively thought they were too famous to be affected by the Nazis and, as Roman Cycowski (Heino Ferch) – the most proudly Jewish member of the group – declares, they loved Germany and believed this "nightmare" would pass. It’s a sobering moment when these apolitical performers discover their country has very different ideas about what citizenship really means.

While detailing the inevitable fate of the Comedian Harmonists, the film lingers too long on a melodramatic love triangle involving two members – the meek arranger Frommermann and the assertive business manager Robert Biberti (Ben Becker) – instead of painting full portraits of the other performers. Fortunately, the actors are strong enough to make each individual distinctive.

Overall, The Harmonists serves as a potent reminder that history consists not just of grand political events, but the quiet moments when proud, beautiful voices are silenced.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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