Guided by Voices


The Harmonists, as Joseph Vilsmaier’s Comedian Harmonists has been retitled for American release, is framed as a sort of retrospective concert— the VH-1 of pre-V-1 Germany. It’s the pinnacle of Berlin’s Jazz Age, and an audience of swells in monocles and evening clothes anticipates the premiere of a hot vocal group. As the elegantly attired ensemble — two tenors, a baritone, a bass, and an imitator of orchestral instruments, accompanied by their pianist— burst
into their lilting close harmonies, the crowd is transfixed.

What was old is new again. Like Germany itself, the pop stars whom The Harmonists‘ publicists are pleased to compare to the Beatles are back together and never was a group so appropriately named. With their trained voices, clockwork precision, and perfect pitch, the Comedian Harmonists invented a distinct form of Euro-scat— a sort of doowop lieder as convoluted as a fugue and as intimate as a whisper. The group’s precise versions of American show tunes (“Night and Day”) or syncopated German chestnuts (“Veronika”) are both funny and glorious. The sound is stirring, yet soothing — the music of some celestial, hi-de-ho glockenspiel.

As the German movie of 1998, The Harmonists confirmed Vilsmaier, maker of the 1994 World War II superproduction Stalingrad, as the leading purveyor of the German nostalgia film. In its local context, The Harmonists celebrates the restoration of a lost cultural wholeness. A unified nation looks back and is delighted to find a mixed German-German Jewish-Balkan ensemble that was, once upon a time, the toast of Europe— until the Nazis came to power. Vilsmaier, a former cinematographer, clearly enjoys putting the period on widescreen display, although the glossy bits of Weimar depravity are tame even by comparison to Hollywood’s Cabaret.

Less than the divine decadence suggested by its print ads, The Harmonists has the happily crass and vapid quality of an early 1950s Doris Day musical. Anyone familiar with the group’s oeuvre will enjoy watching their stage act, rife with innuendos and visual humor, as recreated by actors lip-synching digital remasters from the original 78s. But, performances aside, the movie is dull and perfunctory.
Harry Frommerman (Ulrich Noethen) conceives of the Comedian Harmonists; bluff Robert Biberti (Ben Becker) propels the group to the top. A requisite success montage allows the pre-rock-‘n’-roll Harmonists to enjoy their fame— acting big and banging babes— and screenwriter Klaus Richter concocts a stale romantic subplot in which Harry and Robert compete for the affections of pert Erna Eggstein (Meret Becker) while waiting for the Nazis to appear.

We know that the driven little Harry is a Jew not only because he visits his deceased parents in a prophetically old and overgrown cemetery, but because he is into “irony.” Robert, however, doesn’t realize that the group has any other Jewish members until October 1933, when he’s summoned to Nazi central, innocently wondering who are “our friends are in high places.” The Harmonists struggle briefly with the New Order— at one point giving a command performance for Julius Streicher, the most rabid anti-Semite in the Nazi hierarchy. The premise of this sequence is so grotesque that I can only assume it’s based on some kind of actual incident— the inference is that even the worst Nazi was a closet Harmonist fan.

Harassed by brownshirts, the band is invited to New York. In reality, the tour was something of a flop. In the movie, the Harmonists frolic like the Beatles in Central Park and perform aboard an aircraft carrier in New York Harbor. (It is symptomatic of Vilsmaier’s benign history that he imagines a racially integrated U.S. navy in 1934.) The three Jewish Harmonists are tempted to remain in New York, but Robert persuades them to stage their breakup on German soil.

As detailed by Eberhard Fechner’s definitive three-hour documentary (shown here in 1991 and ripe for reissue), the Jewish Harmonists then left for Vienna, toured the Soviet Union, recorded with Josephine Baker in Paris, and relocated briefly to Australia, before settling in the U.S. Meanwhile, the group’s Aryan faction dropped their Jewish wives, recruited three new singers, and, changing their name to Der Meister Sextette, performed a more martial— as well as racially pure— form of pop, until they were banned again for their “Marxist tootling.” As all this would have required considerable exposition, The Harmonists ends with a grand auf Wiedersehen concert and tearful farewells. The Jewish Harmonists head straight for America with the somewhat self-pitying suggestion that, although expelled from their homeland, they were the lucky ones.

Although the group’s records were long available in West Germany, The Harmonists coincides with a new American interest. The staged concert Band in Berlin has opened this month, beating a rival show with music by Barry Manilow to Broadway. In Germany, Harmonist mania harks back to the last moment when East and West shared a permissible common culture. Here, perhaps, it is the longing for an honest-to-God, surefire Holocaust musical. Can anyone doubt that even now someone somewhere is writing songs for an imagined Broadway version of Life Is Beautiful?

From the vanished past to the approaching future: Showing at Cinema Village as part of the seven-film “2000 Seen By . . . ” series, Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole is the most distilled, droll, and deftly realized allegory yet by this talented Taiwanese filmmaker (an international, if not New York, film festival star since his 1993 Rebels of the Neon God).

On the eve of the millennium, Taipei suffers a mysterious contagion— an exaggerated form of the waterlogged urban alienation rampant in earlier Tsai films. As Tsai’s usual protagonist (boyish Lee Kang-sheng) sleeps in his underwear on the couch, a single woman in a black slip (Yang Kuei-mei, who played a similar role in his Vive l’Amour) mops the floor of the flooded apartment below. Rain is pouring down and something is leaking. Just as the radio reports that the city’s water is contaminated, the woman’s ceiling cracks. This hole will become the focal point for the relationship between these neighbors— the nexus for an eroticism both languorous and queasy.

The Hole is even more contemplative than Vive l’Amour, the only one of Tsai’s films to have a local release. Dialogue is minimal (as is contact between the characters). There are no exteriors; most compositions are in middle shot and the camera is generally fixed. The takes are long and underscored by the near-constant sound of cascading water. Still, The Hole has an absurdist, gross-out undercurrent. The plague, which a French scientist names Taiwan fever, is carried by cockroaches and infects humans with roachlike behavior — scuttling around on all fours, hiding from the light. As this soggy armageddon suggests the peripheral scenes from a cheap horror flick, The Hole‘s deadpan object comedy— featuring an umbrella and a green plastic basin among other things— has intimations of Jacques Tati.

Tsai further enlivens the action with a half dozen musical numbers. Several showgirls (and ultimately the protagonists) lip-synch and dance to a series of brassy nightclub tunes. Signifying an impossible desire or parodying the extraterrestrial scenes in 2001, these routines are staged in the apartment building’s sodden corridors and filmed with the same restraint as the rest of the movie. An end credit thanks the ’50s HK actress­pop singer Grace Chang for her songs “to comfort us in the year 2000.” Vilsmaier might have ended The Harmonists with a similar sentiment.