ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Lotte Lenya: an Introduction

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Anna Pullman

During the 1920s and 1930s Germany was alleged to be the place that developed most in terms of intellectual, cultural and artistic pursuits and the city of Berlin was at the centre of it all, the hub of Weimar Culture despite not actually being within the Weimar republic itself. During the rise of Nazism in the 1930s many of the creative, scientific and artistic people fled to what were seen as safer climes the United States, the United Kingdom where they would be freer to express themselves than in their homeland.

Music, Theatre and Cinema
Playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht and Ernst Toller and songwriters such as Kurt Weill created works that extolled Marxist themes and gave rise to the term agitprop theatre that is, works that were overtly political or expressed specific messages within them designed to impress political ideals upon the watching audience.

Film-makers such as GW Pabst, FW Murnau and Fritz Lang created films using expressionist techniques very often surreal, warped imagery melding with futuristic ideals to create some sort of dystopian world for the characters within to inhabit. In 1930/31 two different versions of Brecht's play The Threepenny Opera were shot, using both French and German speaking casts this film, based on the collaboration between Brecht and Kurt Weill was adapted from an 18th century play The Beggar's Opera by John Gay and again focused on expressly Marxist political themes. Its theme revolves around the marginal difference between stealing or borrowing money and asks (in a question that surely has much resonance in today's society): Is the real criminal the man who steals from a bank, or the man who founds it?

Prior to the film being made, an original stage version had been performed in 1928. The cast featured a German actress and singer Lotte Lenya who at the time was married to composer Kurt Weill. She portrayed the character of "Pirate" Jenny in what was to become the role that would in many ways be her passport to stardom and away from the horrors of Nazi Germany.

Lotte's Life Born Karoline Wilhelmine Charlotte Blamauer in Vienna, Lenya was brought up in a distinctly working class environment. When she was sixteen years old she moved to Zurich to study the arts, chiefly: dance, singing and acting. At first she worked under the name Lotte Lenja but over time "westernized" the spelling. At the beginning of the 1920s, recognizing the influence and rise of the Weimar era, she moved to Berlin to try and find work. It was here in 1924 the she met Kurt Weill and in 1926 they married. Throughout the remainder of the 1920s they collaborated in on many plays--many with Brecht, including: The Rise and Fall Of The City Of Mahogany in 1930 and The Seven Deadly Sins in 1933. In between them they worked on the film version of The Threepenny Opera , directed by George W. Pabst, who warred with Brecht and Weil incessantly over song placement (among other things.) The same sets were used with different actors for a French version filmed simultaneously (Both versions are on the Criterion DVD).

In this clip we see Lenya singing her immortal "Pirate Jenny":

Its a song about revenge in which Jenny (an aging prostitute who was once Mackey's favorite) fantasizes about being a scullery maid fantasizing about becoming a pirate queen to order the execution of her bosses and customers. Lenya's performance of this song is very nuanced restrained, and quietly menacing, lending even more of a stark contrast to the subject matter of the song.

Shortly after this film was made Weill's works were banned in Germany, due to trumped up allegations he was a populist sympathizer (i.e. he was Jewish). His position in the country now untenable, he and wife Lotte fled to France. They divorced soon after, only to meet again and reconcile in 1937, eventually choosing to settle in the United States.

Weill and Lenya in the US
It was during the Second World War that Weil established himself on Broadway, penning plays such as The Eternal Road and Knickerbocker Holiday, the latter famed for "September Song," which cemented his fame and meant that the couple could afford a much better way of life than they ever imagined. When Weill died in 1950, at only 50 years of age, Lenya's film career really began to take off.

She took on notable roles that called for a distinctly European mix of conniving class and authoritarian aggression, earning an Oscar nomination for her role as a conniving madam offering young stud Warren Beatty (in his first film role) to aging Broadway star Vivien Leigh in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961), and the instantly iconic Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love (above). However, she didn't totally stray from her Brechtian roots playing in 1965 the eponymous role in the film Mother Courage and her Children, based on Brecht's original work.

Boldly, the film/play centers on the idea that the lead character is not a heroine; she is not someone the audience can develop any sentimental feelings for. Brecht wanted to create a character in who -- at the end of the proceedings -- the audience would not want to emulate; this became a parameter for the definition of Brechtianism, where the characters are deliberately out to alienate audience sympathy just as the narrative continually defies the spectator's natural inclination to become immersed in the story. Lenya also appeared in the original version of Cabaret (talk about perfect casting!) where she received rave reviews, and recorded several albums of Weil's songs.

She died in 1981 at the age of 83, a grand dame of the arts, having come a long way from her early days as a black turtleneck wearing intellectual in the Weimar republic/ Never the strongest of singers, but with a very adept turn in getting to the heart of the roles she played - she was for a time at the heart of one of the most inspiring yet overtly political times in the arts that has never been seen before or since.

Click on the link below to hear a 1930 recording of Lenya with Brecht and Weil (all pictured) singing "The Alabama Song" from 1929's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany:

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