Most of us have at one time or another hummed along or tapped our foot to the song “Mack the Knife”. “Mack the Knife” has been recorded by everyone from Bobby Darin to Frank Sinatra. My personal favorite is Louis Armstrong’s version.
But “Mack the Knife”, popular as it might be in the United States, is not an American song. It is in fact a song written by Kurt Weill (1900–1950) and Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) for their stage show The Threepenny Opera, which was originally performed in Berlin 1929 (Die Dreigroschenoper), and later became a long-running off-Broadway production in New York City. The Threepenny Opera is based on an English play from 1728 called The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay. The play features thieves, highwaymen, and jailers, which Weill and Brecht turned into characters of the Berlin underworld in the 1920s. Here is Lotte Lenya (1898–1981) singing “Mack the Knife” in its original German, called “Mackie Messer”.
Weill, Brecht and Lenya were active in Germany during the period that is called the Weimar Republic. The Weimar Republic was a democratic parliamentary republic that lasted between 1919 and 1933. It has been given its name from the city of Weimar where its constitution was ratified. Despite its political problems, the Weimar Republic gave rise to a Golden Age of German culture, where many of its most prominent artists and creators were Jews. This was the age of the cabaret, of expressionism and the early movie industry.
The cultural exuberance came crashing down in 1933 when the Nazis took power. According to them the Weimar Republic needed to be destroyed because it was the result of Germany’s humiliating defeat during World War I. Many Jews, among them Weill and Brecht, went into exile and eventually ended up in the United States. Brecht left the United States in 1947 after giving evidence for the House Un-American Activities Committee due to his Communist views. He died in East Berlin three years later. Meanwhile, Weill and Lenya remained in the United States for the rest of their lives.
A touching portrayal of the demise of the Berlin cultural scene of the 1920s can be seen in the movie Adam Resurrected (2008), starring Jeff Goldblum as Adam.
http://www.britannica.com The Threepenny Opera
http://www.britannica.com Kurt Weill
http://www.britannica.com Berthold Brecht
http://www.britannica.com Lotte Lenya
http://www.imdb.com Adam Resurrected
In the words of my friend, the Australian: I shall return.