Music, comedy, and the Nazis

Review: `The Harmonists' tells the true story of a singing group that hit the big time at a very bad time. `The Harmonists' hit the big time at a bad time

April 16, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"The Harmonists" tells the fascinating true story of the Comedian Harmonists, a singing group that rose to fame in Germany in the early 1930s, only to be crushed, like so many other artists, during Hitler's rise to power.

Ulrich Noethen plays Harry Frommerman, an unemployed musician who, in 1927, is so poor and hungry that he is forced to steal seeds from his beloved bird's rations. In a last-ditch attempt to have a life in show business, Harry takes out an advertisement in a Berlin newspaper: "Attention: Baritone, tenor and bass singers wanted. Must be very musical with pleasant sounding voices. For unique performing ensemble. Must be available for daily rehearsals."

At the audition, Harry meets Robert Biberti (Ben Becker), a strapping blond baritone who proceeds to introduce Harry to his friends Ari (Kai Wiesinger), Roman (Heino Ferch) and Erwin (Meret Becker).

They're a mismatched crew, but the sound of their voices harmonizing is pleasant-sounding indeed. With the help of pianist Erich Collin (Heinrich Schafmeister), Harry begins to fiddle around with the arrangements of traditional German leider, creating a syncopated rhythm that gives a playful twist to the country's most cherished songs.

They name themselves the Comedian Harmonists (Harry, the Bobby McFerrin of his day, has an uncanny talent for imitating musical instruments, which he uses for comic effect) and strike out for the nightclub circuit, starting out at a local brothel.

But the Comedian Harmonists catch on, and eventually they are playing grand halls before the swells of German society and, in time, all of Europe. But when Hitler comes to power in 1933, Harry and Roman, who are Jewish, realize that their career may be threatened.

During a visit to New York in 1934, Harry pleads with the group to stay in the United States. Biberti argues that they should return. The decision will change their lives forever. The group would be destroyed. The distinctive timbre of those five voices combined would be silenced.

The Comedian Harmonists are well-known among aficionados, but for most filmgoers, "The Harmonists" will be their first exposure to the delightful sounds and personalities of a group of musicians who have been characterized as "the Beatles of their day."

Director Joseph Vilsmaier has made a genteel, good-looking film and has assembled a charismatic crew of German actors to portray the Harmonists, each of whom comes into his own by the end of the movie. If "The Harmonists" doesn't exhibit particular visual flourishes or much flair by way of narrative, this is all to the good: The absence of filmic style allows the story and the music to come to the fore.

In fact, Vilsmaier deserves high praise just for igniting new interest in the Comedian Harmonists and their sublime musical collaboration.

But he does much more than that. Like "Cabaret," "The Harmonists" is a well-crafted social portrait of Berlin in the '20s and '30s, from the rouged decadence of its demimonde (a cocaine dealer blithely shows up at Harry's audition) to the grim, thin-lipped ignominy of the Reich. (Parents are encouraged to ignore the inexplicable R rating of "The Harmonists," which is an excellent source of entertainment and history for young people.)

By the time the Harmonists give their last performance, filmgoers will be weeping right along with the concert-goers, not just because they have grown to care so much for these disparate fellows (especially the doggedly sweet Harry), but because the scene is such a powerful metaphor for what was to come.

With discretion and taste worthy of its subject, "The Harmonists" makes clear that what was at stake wasn't just the lives of the six men and their legions of fans, but civility itself.

`The Harmonists'

Starring Ulrich Noethen, Ben Becker, Heino Ferch, Heinrich Schafmeister, Max Tidof, Kai Wiesinger

Directed by Joseph Vilsmaier

Released by Miramax Films

Rated R (some nudity)

Running time: 124 minutes

Sun score: ***1/2 Pub Date: 4/16/99

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