The Harmonists, The Brits, and The Dead

by Gary Gordon
(published in the L.A. Free Press, March '99)

     Stanley Kubrick, Gene Siskel, Dusty Springfield, Harry Blackmun, Joe DiMaggio-- they always die in threes.
     That's the rule.
     And it's often a question of rules.
     In 1927, in Germany, Harry Frommerman broke some rules. He started a singing group called the Comedian Harmonists, a sextet of five male vocalists and a pianist whose enticing vocal style and engaging stage presentation propelled them to fame and fortune. They broke the conventional rules of harmony and vocal arrangements (with a large debt to the influence of the American "Negro" group, The Revellers), and it was their misfortune to come up against the folks whose rules were ironclad: the Nazis.
     This is the true story behind the movie The Hamonists, written by Klaus Richter, directed by Joseph Vilsmaier, and starring Ulrich Noethen as Frommerman.
     In the season of Life Is Beautiful, and still in the wake of Schindler's List, this is another story of the rise of the Nazis and the effect cold-blooded fascism has on the everyday life of people.
     I am, admittedly, a sucker for movies about bands and music (Still Crazy, What's Love Got To Do With It, The Glenn Miller Story, Eddie & The Cruisers, American Hot Wax, Nashville, The Idolmaker, One Trick Pony, Get Crazy, and Spinal Tap are among my favorites), so it was fun to watch this group assemble, to meet the variety of characters with their variety of ideas, talents and dreams; to root for them as they worked on the music, to enjoy their victories as they overcame show business adversity and their own egos and began their rise to success.
     And I am admittedly a fan of Us Against Them when the issue is their injustice, their fascism, whether it's done as drama (In The Name Of The Father), or comedy (The Producers). So The Harmonists has all the elements: music and anti-fascism.
     Set against its historical backdrop, the film succeeds masterfully, depicting the Harmonists' struggles, first as a group, then as a group with three Jewish members who encounter the violence of petty Nazi thugs, then collide with the wrath of Gauleiter Julius Streicher (played with the alacrity of a Kenneth Starr). It's an important and compelling story of the lengths to which the Racial Purists will go, and an especially revealing story of the reluctance on the part of the witnesses and victims to believe what they're actually experiencing.
     Set against the history of film and storytelling, The Harmonists, while important and historically informative, is riddled with clichés and with a style of filming that, for most of the film, leaves one cold when one should be embraced, as if it's all happening at a distance. And here one wishes the filmmakers would have brought to the story the inventiveness, the mischief and the elegance the actual sextet brought to their music and performance. Would that the filmmakers had been inspired to break some rules.
     Of course breaking rules does not guarantee a great film. There was only one Kubrick.
     The makers of Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (written and directed by Guy Ritchie) broke alot of rules, played with film technique, wrote some clever dialogue, invented some almost interesting characters, created an almost fun movie, but in the end, didn't really end up with anything to say and have left us with another "Okay, so where do you want to go eat?" movie. This may be what happens when the Brits seek to ignore their rich heritage in drama, comedy, satire and rule-breaking (Michael Leigh's films, Little Voice, Brassed Off, Trainspotting; Rough Times and other films by Ken Loach, the films of Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson, Monty Python's films, to name a very few) and choose instead to do their version of Quentin Tarantino (who should never be confused favorably with Kubrick or even Oliver Stone).
     In LS&TSB, one gang of thugs runs up a debt to a pornographer/gangster, decides to steal some money from another gang who is getting the money by stealing it from another gang-- the permutations are as endless as they are pointless, unnecessary and unsatisfying.
     In the end, the only element that elevates this above Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction is some of the clever dialogue; but the lack of soul and uneven pace put it more on par with Jackie Brown, so we're left with its only major redeeming quality, the soundtrack, which includes Liar Liar by the Castaways, and a classic version of Spooky by Dusty Springfield.
     And in the wake of the deaths of Springfield, Kubrick, Siskel, Blackmun and DiMaggio, we are left with much reflection on the meaning of talent, point of view, film and culture. Without stretching the point too much, or at the risk of making connections where they may at best be tenuous, each person contributed positively to our culture; to our dialogue, to our values, to our enjoyment of life.
     If you were in your formative years when Springfield was on the charts, you know her voice was one of the most erotic ever on the airwaves; she stirred the imagination.
     If your introduction to films included Paths Of Glory, or Dr. Strangelove, you learned, intellectually and viscerally, that it was possible for films to be entertaining and challenging and elevating; that films could be provocative, could agitate, could insist that absurd was absurd, immoral was immoral, and authority was not to go unchallenged, and that virtue was to be found more often than not in rebellion, not obedience to institutional authority and those propagandists who claim virtue and patriotism as theirs to define (are you listening, Bill Bennett?).
     If you grew up on Siskel and Ebert-- well, did they trivialize film, or, as so many claimed in the eulogies, did they popularize it? It's a good discussion. I know I agreed with Siskel as often as not (he really thought the clichéd Saturday Night Fever was one of the best films ever?!), but I did appreciate his fervent endorsements of films that would have otherwise slipped off the radar screen, especially his repeated thumbs up for the documentary Heart Of Darkness, on the making of Apocalypse Now and his praise of last years Smoke Signals.
     And if you grew up before Roe Vs. Wade (Blackmun wrote the Majority opinion), then you know the difference between Freedom of Choice, now legal, and the authoritarian state when people had to break rules at the risk of death and jail. (Blackmun is Frommerman to Scalia's and Rehnquist's Streicher.)
     Then there's Joe DiMaggio. His baseball career was well over before I became a baseball fan. And I don't pretend to know what Paul Simon meant in his song for The Graduate; I was more interested in Anne Bancroft's legs. But baseball and movies have at least one thing in common: current performance as measured against the past. DiMaggio is celebrated as one of the best, and though Sammy Sosa and Cal Ripken are mentioned in comparative breaths, only time will tell.
     As for measuring current performance against past performance, recently the L.A. Times ran an article (Sunday, Feb. 28) on many of the films made twenty-five years ago titled The Spirit of '74 Lives On. They interviewed Robert Towne and cited movies like The Godfather II, Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, A Woman Under The Influence, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Blazing Saddles, The Parallax View, Thieves Like Us, and more. The author, Bill Desowitz, noted accurately and compellingly that those were challenging and intriguing times and that instead of backing away from the angst of the headlines (Vietnam, the Police State, Watergate), filmmakers dug in and produced films that spoke to those events and that angst, figuratively, if not literally.
     Unfortunately, The Spirit of '74 does not live on, it is only, at best, remembered. The times today are just as uncertain, there is poverty and racism, police brutality and renegade federal prosecutors, terrorism and the furtherance of the Prison Industrial Complex; sexism, homophobia, an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, and a polarization regarding values that has nothing to do with Monica Lewinsky and everything to do with those who would use Lewinsky, sex and private actions to undermine the right of privacy and Constitutional protections. And virtually none of our films speak to this, either literally or figuratively.
     Examine the crop nominated for Independent Spirit Awards or Academy Awards; there are some clever and entertaining films, but certainly none to compete with even the most lean of the offerings in '74.
     It's often a question of rules. -----------------------------------------------
     PS: What would a movie column be without casting opinions about the best of '98? My favorite films were The Big Lebowski and Smoke Signals, followed closely by Bulworth, There's Something About Mary, Affliction, The Apt Pupil, and the first two-thirds of Wag The Dog. The Big Lebowski and Smoke Signals were ignored by the Academy, and virtually ignored by the Independent Spirit Awards. In the immortal words of Stan Lee, 'Nuff said.