With flair and compassion, the film shows us the buoyant pre-war spirit that had begun to unravel as people began to understand what was happening around them.


A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.

The Harmonists is a fascinating movie. Set in Berlin during the late 20s, the story bristles with the playfulness of a culture very much like that of New York during the same period. The two cities sang and danced and celebrated new talent until their abandon was snuffed out-in America by the Depression, and in Germany by the Depression and the rise of anti-Semitism.

Based on a true story, the movie tells the tale of a 20-year-old student baritone named Harry Frommermann (Ulrich Noethen), who forms a singing group modeled after "The Revellers," an American a cappella group. Harry fills his sextet from newspaper ads, arranges songs for five-part harmony, and secures a date for their public debut. The ebullient singers, mixing humor with song, open to a wildly enthusiastic audience, go on tour, and become one of the first singing groups to become a national sensation. It is 1927.

For six years, the Harmonists enjoy their burgeoning success while playing out individual domestic dramas on the side. Life is good. Engulfed in euphoria, they ignore the anti-Semitic signals they don't want to see. One day they are summoned by the Reich Music Association "to discuss the non-Aryans in your group." Three of the six are Jewish.

Staunch in the belief that their success will insulate them from the new persecution, they visit the U.S., where they sing to the U.S. fleet gathered in New York Harbor. They hear anti-Nazi catcalls, but cling to the comfort of their lives in Berlin. Overruling Harry's argument that it is dangerous to go home, the majority decides to return. They are immediately condemned by the authorities under the Nuremburg laws of 1935 as "inappropriate for the morals of the German people." They are allowed one final concert in Munich.

Dressed in their jaunty uniforms of white vests and red bow ties, the Harmonists sing to front rows flanked by Nazi flags and packed with Nazi brass. Permission for brutality hangs in the air. The soldiers have been anointed. The innocent joy of the Harmonists dissolves.

As the movie builds to the farewell concert and inevitable separation, director Joseph Vilsmaier uses a masterful touch to create the poignancy of naivete in the grim light of hindsight. Directing his fine German cast as a happy band of innocents in an increasingly ominous time, he creates a mood of nostalgia for the last playful moments before the tragedy of World War II.

Ulrich Noethen's Harry is the sweet-tempered anchor for the group. Noethen and the supporting players, especially Ben Becker as Robert Biberti, jump to life in a group portrait of the innovative singers who brought a new sound to their country. By the mid-30s, destruction of Germany's arts and entertainment had become prelude to destruction of its people. With flair and compassion, the film shows us the buoyant pre-war spirit that had begun to unravel as people began to understand what was happening around them.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 500
Studio : Miramax
Rating : R
Running time : 1h54m

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