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Joe May's sensual drama of life in the Berlin underworld is in many ways the perfect summation of German filmmaking in the silent era: a dazzling visual style, a psychological approach to its characters, and the ability to take a simple and essentially melodramatic story and turn it into something more complex and inherently cinematic. Written by
Joe May's tale of forbidden self-abnegation asks whose ass is really at fault?
From its elaborate and stylish opening scenes, Asphalt immediately establishes itself as a startling achievement. This unforgettable film is in many ways the perfect summation of German film-making in the silent era: a dazzling visual style, a psychological approach to its characters, and the ability to take a simple and essentially melodramatic story and turn it into something more complex and inherently cinematic. Although influenced by such classics as The Last Laugh and Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Asphalt is a unique look at urban life and a classic in its own right.
The plot in Asphalt is very simple: a woman caught trying to shoplift a diamond seduces the cop entrusted with bringing her to justice and the cop pays an very high cost for his lapse in judgment, but great films don't require elaborate plots to achieve their greatness. Betty Amann, the female lead who looks like a mash-up of Louise Brooks and Betty Boop, is sensuous and sultry but not cartoonishly so. In other words, she's no Theda Bara and thank goodness for that. Perhaps if she was a cult goddess like Brooks, Asphalt would be no different than the G.W. Pabst classic Pandora's Box. It is completely baffling why Amann never became a star. Amann is paired greatly with Gustav Fröhlich, who is remembered for his performance in Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis, you will be surprised at his range here. Emotionally naked, Fröhlich goes from anger to tenderness, and then to craven denial when faced with the consequences of a violent act.
Asphalt is directed by Joe May, a leading German filmmaker of the 1910s and 1920s who is also known for the two-part epic The Indian Tomb. In addition, he helped to launch the career of Fritz Lang. Like Lang, May later relocated to Hollywood, where he directed several classic B-films, most notably The Invisible Man Returns. But Asphalt remains perhaps his most famous, and his greatest, work. However, May's handling of individual scenes is impressive. Reality is put in its place when location shots of the city are followed by a breathtaking Expressionist caricature of what we've just been shown, with the camera craning and tracking through throngs of extras and fleets of vehicles on UFA's enormous street set.
As Dave Kehr from the New York Times said, "Asphalt reveals a filmmaker of astonishing technical skills and a distinctive visual style, based on a use of raked sets to create a sense of precariousness and claustrophobia." Brilliant!!!
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