The Harmonists is a German made film that begins in 1927 and runs till 1934, dealing directly with the impact of the Nazis on the lives of the principal characters, members of a popular and very successful singing group, the Comedian Harmonists.
The director/executive producer of the film (born 1939) and its writer (born 1943) are from the post-Nazi generation and, so, in a sense, are a step removed from direct personal involvement in that dark history. Still, the younger German generations have surely carried their own special emotional baggage on these issues. It is not unusual to hear comments from Germany today, sometimes to the effect that Germans have tried to ignore or bury the past, sometimes to the opposite effect that the Germans have paid enough penance for the crimes of an earlier generation. Sometimes, too, the sounds of neo-Nazism become a reminder that the past is not as well behind us as we would hope.
The film focuses on the history, based on fact, of the Comedian Harmonists. The idea of the singing group was that of Harry Frommerman, a young Jewish drama student with musical talent. His special "take" on the music was to use essentially traditional, even kitschy types of tunes, sung in close harmony with musical skill, and to add just enough of a touch of irony, both in the lyrics and in the arrangements, to make the songs fresh and amusing, thereby avoiding the overly sentimental effect such music might otherwise have. It proved to be a formula for success.
The film follows the group from its formation, through its initial struggles, and to the worldwide acclaim that they won. In that aspect, it is not unlike many performer biopics from the past. But here, on a parallel track, the Nazis are rising to power and the film shows, through a series of incidents, the ugly ways that National Socialism infiltrated the daily lives of even the nonpolitical. Several times, members of the group are shown to be in denial of what was going on around them. At least, they deluded themselves that their fame and popularity would protect them. Three of the six members were Jewish. In the end, the Nazis force the dissolution of the group.
The talented cast is led by Ulrich Noethen, who brings to the role of Frommerman a fine sense of wry, the very irony that was at the root of the group’s success. We get to know several members of the group in some depth, we see their relationships and conflicts develop. The singing numbers have charm, if, to this ear, a bit of sameness about them. Indeed, the charismatic quality of the group, the performing magic that made them the big stars they were, is not convincingly demonstrated and that is a major weakness in the film.
But in the end, it is the handling of the historical theme which separates The Harmonists from the standard show biz biography. The screenwriter says, "The film wants to express the sorrow of what it meant – and what it still means – for Germany that the country’s best creative talents were persecuted, suppressed, driven away, and finally murdered." In this, CV believes the film falls short. The major scene of the group’s last appearance together in concert in 1934 loses the balance of intelligent humor and blatant sentimentality for which the writer says he was aiming. It droops into manipulative tear jerking and, as represented, seemed more a fiction of the silver screen than any possible reality. That only one couple got up to leave when the Nazi condemnation of the group was announced stretches credulity.
And, at the conclusion, the Jewish members of the group leave Germany. They have the money, they have the clout of their fame to win them their freedom. It makes for a happy, if bittersweet ending. To this viewer, in the final analysis, The Harmonists seemed to trivialize the experience of those victims of the Nazis who were less privileged.