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The Harmonists  

I could be wrong, but I wonder if perhaps people in Germany have a harder time dealing with the history and the memory of World War II than citizens of other countries. After all, it was Germany which started the war, with an insane leader at the helm who presided over the great tragedy of human history. Who would feel good about oneself in such a country? Yet there are obviously some people who are trying to deal with the facts of the war, and that includes German filmmakers. Films like Das Boot and The Nasty Girl give varying perspectives on Germany`s role in the war, and The Harmonists is another.

What makes The Harmonists unique is that the film is not so much about war, but about music. "The Comedic Harmonists" are a musical singing group from the 1930`s, who enjoy massive popularity, and are generally adored by many in the country. Much of the film, in fact, does not deal much with the Nazis at all, but with the dynamic which exists in a number of music group bios. The beginning of the movie details the group`s formation and rise to popularity. All the major events involve the men and their music, from the difficulties in finding and agreeing on a proper style and presentation, to the clever ways in which they are able to convince concert halls and the like to hire them for performances. And as with other stories involving groups of like-minded people, the singing group suffers from a number of internal problems which must be resolved. Actually, the true sufferers are Harry and Bob, the two major forces behind the group, who now fight over seemingly small points as Harry`s tendency to, in Bob`s opinion, upstage the rest of the group with his goofiness during performances (odd; they are called the Comedic Harmonists.). Also, the two fight over the love of a woman, who herself is divided between the affections of these men.

It is not until later when the elements of warfare and Nazi Germany make themselves a prominent force in the rest of the story. The Nazis slowly insinuate themselves into society, so slowly that many people seem to think of them as nuisances rather than a genuinely dangerous threat. Assumptions that reason will soon prevail are dashed, however, when Hitler takes power, and Jews, especially, feel the force of hatred which was to grow until it reached horrific proportions. Like Life Is Beautiful, this movie starts out like any other normal human story, then has the rug pulled out from under it by the Nazi threat. This may be the key to these film`s importance - underneath the massive war machine lay people who tried to live out their normal lives. But these lives are changed - and destroyed - forever, because of political and ideological aspirations beyond the citizens control. The lesson learned in the case of this film is that not even music which makes many people happy could save Germany from itself. The band itself cannot survive the way it is because of the Jewish factor - three of the six members are Jews, and they perform songs written by Jewish composers. Yet what is interesting is that the Nazis do not destroy the group outright, but make what the Nazis believe are reasonable compromises - basically, the group, for now, can be tolerable, as long as the Jewish numbers are scrapped. What we see, in fact, is that some Nazis were just like everyone else in that the group does hold a place in their hearts, and there is a strange scene when a high-ranking Nazi, after having just told the Jewish Harry and the Gentile Bob to scrap the Jewish numbers or be punished, asks the two for autographs. As with other people in Germany, Harry and the other Jews wish to be somewhere else, and they might get that chance when they are invited to perform for the U.S. Navy. Yet problems arise when Bob, in particular, sees this desire to remain in the States as a sort of disloyalty for Germany.

This was a fine movie, another example of the sorts of film making to be found in Germany. I found it neat, after having seen the very hip production of Run Lola Run, to see something completely unlike the sleek modern look of that film. The Harmonists is a traditional period piece, with a good story and a sense of history. The musical history is interesting; while this easy listening melody is not exactly my kind of music, it was the popular music of its day, and it is fascinating to see what music stars of a bygone era were like. Also, a movie like this is another reminder of the destruction brought among ordinary people when a tyrant is allowed to control their country.

David Macdonald

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