Grand Illusion

Both films are based on real events, but The Harmonists is more specific: It recounts the career of the Comedian Harmonists, a German singing group popular during the decade preceding the rise of Nazism. Director Joseph Vilsmaier was fortunate enough to have as a resource the last remaining Harmonist, Roman Cycowski, who died in Palm Springs only four months ago.

The Comedian Harmonists have no modern equivalent, but they somewhat resemble (for those of you old enough to remember) the Coasters, the '50s group specializing in comic songs that were, despite their "novelty" aspects, musically brilliant and inventive. Like the Coasters, the German group spiced up their act with onstage antics and mildly risque lyrics; their strongest influences appear to have been the very same black musicians from whom the Coasters' art ultimately derived.

At the movie's beginning, we meet Harry Frommermann (Ulrich Noethen), an actor who can't resist introducing continued on page 68continued from page 66humor into everything he does whether it's appropriate or not. As a result, he is, not surprisingly, out of work most of the time.

But Harry sees himself more as a musician than an actor ... despite the fact that he can't play an instrument. A huge fan of American pop and jazz -- which he gets to hear while flirting with music-store clerk Erna Eggstein (Meret Becker) -- he decides to assemble a vocal group along the lines of the Revelers, the most popular such group in the U.S. at the time.

After hiring bass Bob Biberti (Ben Becker), Harry assembles three more singers (Heino Ferch, Heinrich Schafmeister, Max Tidof) and a pianist (Kai Wiesinger) and starts mercilessly rehearsing them in his own syncopated arrangements. After a false start, the group zooms to fame -- a rise that is documented in classic Hollywood fashion, with montages of headlines, champagne glasses, performances and wild parties.

But in the background is the growing menace of Nazism. We know from early on that Harry is Jewish, as are the owners of the music store where the gentile Erna works. But so assimilated are most Jews within the overall culture that we, like the group itself, only gradually discover which of its other members are Jewish. Eventually we learn that the ethnic tally is 50-50.

In 1933, when Hitler comes to power, it's obvious that the group is headed for trouble. Still, in understandable denial, all but Harry convince themselves that the strength of their fanbase (which includes Nazi bigwig Julius Streicher) will somehow protect them. Finally, in 1934, they are forced to break up, and the Jewish members flee the country.

Though the political conflict is the most interesting part of the Comedian Harmonist story, it is too simple and not particularly dramatic. Vilsmaier appears to have too much respect for the truth to goose things up with contrived crises. But he also realizes that the outline of that conflict is frankly insufficient to carry a two-hour film.

As a result, he concentrates for most of the film's length on the group's musical and personal struggles, relegating the Nazi elements to the background until the final third. The primary subplot is the romantic competition between Harry and Bob over Erna's affections. (That the actors portraying Bob and Erna are siblings in real life adds a small, creepy frisson to their big romantic scene.)

If it's not already obvious, however, most of The Harmonists fits firmly in the tradition of the Hollywood show-biz biopic: except for the political scenes and a slightly higher level of realism that forbids fake melodrama, it could pass for a 40-year-old 20th Century Fox extravaganza. That's not an insult. The production is lavish and handsome, with beautiful sets and costumes, and Vilsmaier's graceful camera tracks through the action, frequently for a minute or more without a cut. The music is impressive, though it would have been nice to hear more numbers in their entirety.

And Noethen, a stage actor making his screen debut, is a memorable presence. His wild hair and hangdog face have a classic sad-clown look that evokes both Buster Keaton and Roberto Benigni.

Opens April 2 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Andy Klein

Directed by Gil Junger

A couple of years or so ago, Jane Austen suddenly rose from classical obscurity to become the hottest screenwriter in Hollywood. Now it is Shakespeare himself who has become the magic name to drop. There are straight-up productions of his plays in the works -- a star-studded version of A Midsummer's Night Dream is scheduled for release in May -- but the creators of the endearing, energetic new film 10 Things I Hate About You have chosen a less risky approach. As the inspiration for their script, first-time screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kristen Smith have followed the template forged by Amy Heckerling for her transposition of Jane Austen's Emma into the 1995 hit Clueless. And although comparisons to that earlier, splashier film are inevitable, there are at least 10 things about this one that are better.

One of them is the inspired way director Gil Junger and his collaborators have played off the original. In 10 Things I Hate About You, Lutz and Smith have used The Taming of the Shrew as their source, substituting the rich suburbs of Seattle, Wash., for 14th-century Verona, Italy. What they have retained from the original, though, is the air of swooning romanticism. The story begins when Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a newly arrived sophomore who is being given a tour of Padua High School by his friend Michael (David Krumholtz), first lays eyes on Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) and falls madly in love with her. Naturally, Cameron wants to go out with this comely fellow student, but there is a slight problem for anyone who would like to ask Bianca out on a date. By proclamation of her hilariously nervous and overprotective father (Larry Miller), Bianca cannot date until her older sister, Katarina (Julia Stiles) dates. And if Kat has anything to do with it, that won't be anytime soon. Whereas everything about Bianca is gentle and sweet, everything about Katarina is odious and rough. She hates boys, and the thought of dating even more. And so she terrorizes every unwitting lad who comes within shouting distance of her.

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