“Comedian Harmonists” is a big, enjoyable musical biopic of the kind Hollywood used to produce in the ’50s. Conventionally structured but high on production values, this true story of a hugely popular German barbershop sextet that fell victim to anti-Semitism and the rise of Nazism in the ’30s has everything going for it except an awkward title and the fact that it’s in a foreign language. Pic has been a B.O. winner on home soil, but the challenge for foreign distribs will be persuading auds to patronize a subtitled item about a group few non-Teutons have heard of.
In the U.S., Miramax may find remake rights a more profitable avenue than the pic itself, though a canny campaign centered on the group’s (nowadays almost camp) music could yield some theatrical returns as a curio. (Barry Manilow’s recent stage musical about the singers, “Harmony,” may help to heighten their profile in the States.)
Basic story has all the ingredients of a good commercial story: Berlin in its wild, decadent heyday; marital and sexual tensions within the group; a trip Stateside at a crucial point in their career; plus a “Sound of Music” last-concert-on-home-soil finale that’s a genuine tear-jerker. Add to this a top-drawer cast — in which even some well-known names are almost thrown away — and tony widescreen lensing by d.p.-director Joseph Vilsmaier (“Stalingrad,” “Brother of Sleep”), who clearly knows how to put together a big-boned biopic of this sort.
Pic kicks off in December ’27, with Harry Frommermann (Ulrich Noethen), a young musician-arranger, falling for Erna (Meret Becker), an assistant in a music shop. In his job-hunting rounds, Harry meets Robert Biberti (Ben Becker), an ambitious, entrepreneurial-minded singer, and together they hatch the idea of a multipart-harmony group singing in German. Other friends of Robert sign up, and they’re joined by Erwin (Kai Wiesinger), a professional arranger, and Ari (Max Tidof), a Bulgarian singer working cheap cafes.
Movie spends some time on the formation of the group, and their early problems of rehearsal and musical identity — which gives time for the characters to emerge as individuals before the event-heavy main story weighs in.
Bulk of the movie contrasts their rise to fame with growing pressures from the authorities either to get rid of the three Jews in the group or perform material more fitting to National Socialism. A successful trip to New York tempts several to stay Stateside, but in the end the group decides to return — one for all and all for one — to German soil, convinced that Nazism is only a passing aberration.
In its structure and script, the movie follows time-proven Hollywood formulas: opening and closing on big musical numbers; scattering others at regular intervals; centering the emotional thread on one pair of characters (here, the Jewish Harry and gentile Erna); and keeping several mini-storylines going without letting any capsize the ship. Dialogue is functional rather than inspired, but gets a major boost from its experienced cast.
Six main thesps, who bear more than a passing resemblance to the real characters, blend excellently and look comfortable in period duds and mannerisms: Noethen is very good as Frommermann, torn between love of his homeland and the compromises that keep him there; Becker excellent as the brash, blond Biberti, who sticks by Frommermann to the end; Wiesinger smooth in a tailor-made role as the arranger; and Heinrich Schafmeister quietly impressive as the monocled Collin, in many ways the rock of the group.
With such a large central cast, the women tend to come off as little more than appendages, though Meret Becker (real-life sister of Ben Becker), Dana Vavrova (actress-director wife of Vilsmaier) and, especially, Katja Riemann have individual moments. Rolf Hoppe contributes a laser-sharp cameo as a seemingly sympathetic Nazi higher-up whose every honeyed request conceals an iron fist.
Musical stagings, which use digitally remastered recordings by the actual group, range from the intimate to large-scale, and are snappily staged and cut. Finale is handled with some sensitivity and quiet dignity, and is all the more effective as a result. Ace p.d. Rolf Zehetbauer gets the max from a mixture of authentic locations and studio work, including a neat, CGI-aided re-creation of the group’s 1934 concert on an aircraft carrier in a New York harbor.