Director G.W. Pabst (Pandora's Box) captures both the story's docklands setting and the unmistakable whiff of 1920s Berlin decadence, along with the bitter aftertaste of the original. The music remains stirring, and the indelible Lotte Lenya (Weill's wife and the enduring interpreter of his music) plays Jenny, the slattern Mackie thrusts aside to marry Polly (Carola Neher), daughter of the king of the beggars.
The sheer beauty of the film's black-and-white images is well served by Criterion's release, which also includes a second disc containing L'opera de quat'sous, a French-language version of the film, directed by Pabst simultaneously with the shooting of the German version. Its cast (including Albert Prejean and, in a small role, Antonin Artaud) and lighter tone make it a decidedly less compelling movie than the German take. A 48-minute documentary detailing the story of Threepenny's journey from stage to screen is an unusually good backgrounder; other features include a commentary track, a visual comparison of the German and French versions, and a delightful new introduction for the movie's re-release in East Germany two decades after its making, featuring actors Fritz Rasp and Ernst Busch. --Robert Horton