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During World War I, an Austrian officer is trapped behind the Russian lines. He tries to sneak through to his own lines, but is forced to take refuge in a small hotel, where he is hidden by the establishment's chambermaid. The two fall in love, but a Russian general makes the hotel his headquarters and sets his sights on the maid. In addition, the Austrian must find out the identity of a spy who is feeding the Russians military information that could lead to the destruction of the Austrian army. Written by
Another forgotten gem from the last days of the silent era
I was lucky enough to see this film at a recent screening at the Museum of Modern Art. The print was beautiful, it was accompanied with live music, and the audience was large and enthusiastic. When the show was over people were buzzing, and I couldn't help but wonder: why isn't Mauritz Stiller's Hotel Imperial better known? It's a stylistic triumph that should be remembered and celebrated for first-rate direction, cinematography and sets. True, there are a couple of unlikely plot twists along the way, and the ending is a little more schmaltzy than one might like, but over all this film's virtues far outweigh its flaws. And notably, it features an excellent performance by Pola Negri, an actress better remembered for her off-screen eccentricities and diva-like behavior than for any of her movies. Here she proves she could give a nuanced, convincing performance as a chambermaid who shows genuine valor in wartime.
Viewers familiar with Billy Wilder's 1943 drama Five Graves to Cairo will find that Stiller's film provided Wilder's source material. The original story is set in an Austrian village during the early days of the First World War. A wounded Austrian lieutenant named Almasy stumbles into a nearly deserted hotel, where Anna the chambermaid (Negri) chooses to give him refuge despite the danger to herself. At her behest he disguises himself as the hotel's waiter, and stays on when Russian troops take over the town and commandeer the hotel. Because of his close proximity to the enemy the lieutenant is able to interfere with the Russians' plans -- with Anna's help -- and alter the course of the battle.
What happens in this film isn't as important as how it is presented. Here, atmosphere is more important than plot. Like all the best silent films this one utilizes very few title cards; remarkably, there are none at all for the first ten minutes or so. The camera smoothly follows a group of exhausted soldiers on horseback as they make their way across the smoking wasteland. No one speaks; there's nothing to be said. Stiller conveys a great deal with evocative imagery, sharp editing, and the understated performances of his players. You won't find any exaggerated emoting here. Once the lieutenant has assumed his false identity the suspense builds and our empathy with the central couple deepens. The leading lady is especially impressive in a scene where she must pretend to enjoy the lecherous advances of a Russian general in order to buy time for the lieutenant, who she loves; her forced gaiety and the dead look in her eyes perfectly express her feelings. Leading man James Hall is forgotten today (sadly, his life and career were blighted by acute alcoholism) but he is memorable as Lieutenant Almasy and pairs well with Negri. We care about this couple, fear for them, and root for them.
I'd say this movie deserves to be ranked with the strongest dramas of the late silent era, perhaps not in the very top tier with The Docks of New York and The Man Who Laughs, but not far behind. It certainly deserves to be as well remembered as such war dramas as Wings and Seventh Heaven. There's little else to add except that silent film buffs should seek it out, and see it with an audience if at all possible.
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