Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Harmonists

By Marc Savlov

APRIL 5, 1999: 

D: Joseph Vilsmaier; with Ulrich Noethen, Ben Becker, Meret Becker, Kai Wiesinger, Heino Ferch, Heinrich Schafmeister, Max Tidof, Katja Riemann, Meret Becker. (R, 115 min.)

Based on a true story, The Harmonists relates the trials of a late-1920s/early 1930s pop music sextet as they struggle to achieve recognition in their own country and later fall prey to the increasing machinations of the emerging Nazi party. It's the Backstreet Boys vs. Hitler, more or less, but director Vilsmaier handles the whole affair with style and aplomb. The only thing missing seems to be any sense of why this particular sextet became so popular in the first place. Certainly Berlin after the Great War was a hotbed of artistic and creative endeavors, and The Harmonists goes to some length to show that, but Noethen, as group leader Harry Frommermann (looking more than a little like Roberto Begnini with a frazzled Groucho mane) seems like such a whiny mensch that it's hard to work up much sympathy for the six (of whom three were Jewish) when their fortunes begin to slide inexorably toward ruin. Their full name, The Comedian Harmonists, implies more of their style: upbeat, syncopated versions of traditional German folksongs and tunes of the day disassembled and put back together with sly double entendres and marginally off-color barbs. Frommermann forms the group in 1927 after his bemused agent tells him that his work as a solo just doesn't cut it. Incensed, he holds an audition in his cramped apartment (the parakeet keeps chiming in and spoiling things) and ends up with partners Erich (Schafmeister), Ari (Tidof), Erwin (Wiesinger), Robert (Becker), and Roman (Ferch). Presto: A supergroup is born. Vilsmaier uses many of the group's original recordings to spice up the otherwise dull soundtrack, though the group, who based their style on that of the popular American group of the time, the Revellers, seems tame by comparison. Still, Germany thought it quite the rage. As fame and fortune arrive as a result of their hard work, these Comedian Harmonists are loath to notice the changes in the political spectrum around them. It's not until a shop belonging to a young lady on whom Frommermann has his eye (Becker) is trashed by Hitler's goons that the entertainers realize that they're in the midst of a political firestorm. A scene in which they are called before a leading Nazi commandant to perform at an official Nazi function is doubly affecting when they are told -- forcibly so -- that it is to be their last. Noethen is fine in the role of the befuddled songwriter, as are most of the others, but Vilsmaier sacrifices our interest in favor of sticking perhaps too closely to the facts, which are interesting but hardly the stuff of legend as presented here. Mildly engrossing but, ultimately, the sort of film that demands more attention than it should, The Harmonists resonates with barely a dull thud.

2.5 stars

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