Published February 1, 1999
The Harmonists, directed by Joseph Vilsmaier, is the “based-on-a-true story” story of The Comedian Harmonists, an immensely popular singing group in pre-war Germany that eventually had to break up, as three of its six members were Jewish. Like nearly every other film set in its time and place, this one is ultimately sucked into the black hole of Nazi tyranny, from which no ray of real artistic light can escape. But more than most it still has the power to interest and engage and charm—particularly those of us who are partial to the sound of male voices singing in multi-part harmony. But the reason why it is possible to enjoy both the music and, to a slightly more limited extent, the human story of the group’s formation, success and disbandment is that the Holocaust remains just over the temporal horizon throughout. If it had been physically present it would, with its massive moral authenticity, have made everything else seem merely trivial. Even implied as it is here it casts too much of a retrospective blight over our experience of the film.
In its favor are the fine performances of Ulrich Noethen as Harry Frommermann, the group’s originator and Ben Becker as Robert Biberti his co-founder. The friendship between the two—one Jewish and dark, a witty and nimble light baritone, the other “Aryan” and blond, a powerful bass—is really the heart of the film, especially when they become rivals for the affections of the comely Erna Eggstein (Meret Becker). Their story’s intrinsic interest pushes to the margins those of the group’s other members, and the film can be faulted for not giving them enough to do. When the group’s pianist, Erwin Bootz (Kai Weisinger), divorces his wife because she is Jewish, our interest in this event is limited because the characters have been developed too sketchily up to this point. Even the invitation to sing for no less a personage than Gauleiter Julius Streicher (Rolfe Hoppe) is not made enough of.
Much better is the unforgettable scene in which a lower-level Nazi official summons Harry and Robert and utters dark threats against them because of their Jewish members and “Jewish music”—and then asks them to autograph a record album for him, obviously not realizing that Harry is one of the Jews. It is a note of postmodern absurdity unobscured even by the enfolding and too-familiar melodrama of the Nazi takeover. There are other moments almost as good, among them the scene in which the others explain to the group’s Bulgarian tenor, Ari (Max Tidof), that the lyrics in one of their songs describing pretty Veronika in the springtime when “the asparagus is sprouting” are actually a double entendre. Ari, who along with the others spends much of his time off-stage in a brothel, is shocked. “We can do that,” he says, “but we can’t sing about it.”
Such innocence in retrospect now seems almost more piquant than the more obvious ironies in the group’s comic and sentimental songs about the urgent longing for happiness or how “politics is forgotten in Kalumba.” Like the pure harmonies their musicianship cultivates, such lyrics have a poignant appeal across intervening decades, not only of war and Nazi horror but of further devastation wrought by the sexual revolution and its misguided campaign against the old sexual hypocrisies. In that context the information, displayed on the screen in the final frames, that the real-life Robert Biberti went on to become one of the designers of the V-2 rocket appears somehow obscurely to confirm our instinctive sense that there can never be any going back.