American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"The Harmonists'' tells the story of the rise and fall of a vocal group that was wildly popular in Germany before it was disbanded in 1934 as part of the mounting persecution of Jews. The Comedian Harmonists, who did comic and romantic songs in intricate harmony, were popular and beloved. Even members of the Nazi hierarchy were among their fans. But eventually they were forbidden to sing songs by Jewish composers--and finally, because three of their members were Jewish, they were banned from performing in public.
Given the suffering created by the Nazis, the fate of the Harmonists ranks low on the scale. But as one of the countless little stories that add up to the plague of Nazism, they deserve an entry in the chronicle of despair. And it is revealing how, like many of their countrymen both Jewish and Gentile, they were blind until the last moment to the actual intentions of the Nazis. There is a moment in the film when the Harmonists are performing in New York and consider staying in America. But they do not. The handwriting was on the wall, but it was not yet sufficiently clear.
The arc of the film leads from early cheerfulness to eventual defeat, but for much of the time "The Harmonists'' plays like a standard show-biz biopic. We meet the founder of the group, Harry Frommermann (Ulrich Noethen), who in 1927 hears a record by a black American jazz group named the Revellers. Entranced by the beauty of their close harmony, he determines to start a German group that would sing in the same style. It's slow going at first, but after the brash, confident Robert Biberti (Ben Becker) joins him, they find the other recruits and end up with five singers and a piano player.
The first agent they audition for tells them their music sounds "funereal.'' That night, the pianist plays around with a faster tempo, and they find their style. I've never heard the Revellers, but the Harmonists remind me of the Mills Brothers, and they do something the Mills Brothers also did: They use their voices, hands and breath control to imitate the sound of musical instruments. There's an instrumental solo in the film done entirely without instruments.