Harry Piel: the Douglas Fairbanks of Weimar cinema
Harry Piel was one of the major stars of German cinema in the 1910s and 1920s, though most people have probably never heard of him today. Because Weimar-era cinema is typically linked with the Expressionist era of the early 1920s or the Neue Sachlichkeit movement of the later years of that decade, films and directors who did not fit that mold are often excluded from the traditional narrative.
Piel's ZIGANO (1925) shows no trace of Expressionist, psychological angst, and makes no attempt to tell its story through realism or social criticism (though one could make a stretch in drawing comparisons to the Napoleonic-era occupation of the Rhineland and the presence of the French in post-Treaty of Versailles Germany). First and foremost, ZIGANO is pure entertainment. It is highly reminiscent of the costumed swashbuckler epics that Douglas Fairbanks was turning out in Hollywood. Zigano is one part THE MARK OF ZORRO and one part ROBIN HOOD.
Set during the Napoleonic wars, the film tells the story of Benito (Harry Piel), a sensitive young man, raised by his mother and taught to be a morally upright, self-sacrificing Christian. Yet when confronted with the injustices committed by the occupying French soldiers, Benito must reject his "turn the other cheek" indoctrination and learn (astonishingly quickly) to fight back. Benito becomes embroiled in a conflict between the French soldiers and a band of outlaws (who in these desperate times are considered heroes by the local peasants). In coming to the aid of the robber chieftain Zigano, Benito practically single- handedly defeats a gang of French soldiers. Zigano, however, is killed by a sniper. The robber band elects Benito as their new leader--their new "Zigano." An intrigue is underway at one of the German courts, and it's up to Zigano to prove the faithfulness and innocence of the damsel in distress (Dary Holm) and to expose the villainous Ganossa (Fritz Greiner).
The film is overlong (approximately 125 minutes), just as the above-mentioned Fairbanks epics tend to be, but Harry Piel manages to convey enough on-screen charisma (he even winks at the audience with a knowing tongue-in-cheek attitude) and matinée-idol good looks to charm the ladies in the audience, and to provide enough action and derring-do to satisfy the boyfriends. ZIGANO is not a masterpiece, but it is an example of the kind of lavish spectacles that entertained German audiences in the 1920s, and a reminder that German silent cinema was more than NOSFERATU and METROPOLIS.
0 of 0 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?