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Friday, April 9, 1999

Defly directed piece of history

Movie: The Harmonists

Posted on Fri, Apr 9, 1999 at 4:00 AM

Our Rating: 3.50

"The group's more important than the individual," Harry Frommerman, the cheery founder of a once-popular vocal harmony sextet, declares during "The Harmonists," the tale of a German group of the late '20s and '30s who modeled their sound after American group the Revellers.

Frommerman, played by an immensely appealing Ulrich Noethen, of course was espousing an inclusive all-for-one philosophy, the interdependent commitment it takes to turn an inspired idea -- clever, humorous performances by five singers and a pianist, in this case -- into the kind of commercial success that elevates these musicians to the status of national celebrities.

That same line of thinking, though, was horribly reconfigured by Hitler and the Nazis, who forced the 1935 breakup of the beloved band, comprised of three Jews and three gentiles. The group then split into two separate units bearing the same name, with the all-Aryan lineup left behind in Berlin. Both disbanded by 1941, and all copies of the Comedian Harmonists' recordings and short films were destroyed. Roman Cycowski, the last living member of the original sextet, died at 97 last November in Palm Springs.

The Harmonists' sound has survived famously, despite the best efforts of their enemies. An exhaustive documentary was released in the '70s, and the late-'90s have brought two stage musicals -- "Band in Berlin" and the Barry Manilow-composed "Harmony" -- and this revealing, often funny German-made feature film directed by Joseph Vilsmaier. The movie, a prize-winner that has racked up rave reviews at film festivals in Europe and America, is likely to have the greatest long-term impact.

"The Harmonists" perfectly conveys the high-caliber musicianship and joie de vivre that must have entranced audiences all those years ago. The group easily mixes Duke Ellington and Cole Porter tunes with Dvorak, German cabaret and folk songs, infusing everything with infectious high spirits. Frommerman, played by an actor whose floppy body, free-form hair and twinkling eyes are somewhat reminiscent of Roberto Benigni, uses his voice to imitate an array of orchestra sounds.

The broad outline of the story, from its let's-put-on-a-show beginnings to the intragroup conflict to the teary finale, might have been lifted from a classic Hollywood musical. Frommerman, a Jewish musician-arranger in love with gentile music-store clerk Erna (Meret Becker), in 1927 brainstorms his new enterprise with singer Robert Biberti. The two, calling on friends and acquaintances, polish their act for months and then nearly break up after an agent's negative reaction leads to a crisis of confidence. Audiences, though, rapidly take to the Harmonists, and they notch international success by 1930.

The Nazis, meanwhile, gradually increase their terrorization of non-Aryans, initially espousing racism on radio broadcasts, next scrawling epithets on the store where Erna works, then smashing store windows and eventually asking the Harmonists to excise Frommerman, opera singer Cycowksi (Heino Ferch) and gifted linguist Erich Collin (Heinrich Schafmeister), the group's three Jewish members. The singers, perhaps like many of their countrymen, had been in denial about the severity of the situation.

The poisonous politics even worm their way inside the group, with Frommerman and the blond, beefy, wealthy Biberti (Ben Becker) fighting for the affections of the same woman; Cycowksi initially rejected as marrying material by gentile dancer Mary (Katja Riemann); and gentile pianist Erwin Bootz (Kai Wiesinger) suddenly deciding to split from his Jewish wife, Ursula (Dana Vavrova). Yes, melodrama occasionally erupts from these situations. But the film's grounding in reality, and Vilsmaier's deft touch, ensure that the story remains compelling to the end.


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