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Outstanding German silent era crime drama; an early film noir about a
young traffic officer who gets involved with a femme fatale he has just
arrested for stealing a diamond from a jeweler's shop. This
spit-curled, dark-haired beauty attempts to use tears, tricks, Cognac,
a pillow-laden couch proportioned like a king-sized bed, and finally a
black-laced bodysuit/nightie to seduce our officer into letting her
off. These two soon become emotionally involved with each other, but
the officer is feeling guilt over shirking his duty to arrest her.
The photography in this film is really excellent - the film as a whole is very visual, with lots of facial close-ups, softly filtered lighting along with shadowy rooms and hallways, and an interesting montage at the beginning of the asphalt streets of Berlin and it's fast moving crowds of people and traffic, all shown with interesting overlapped and angled photography. The actors all give excellent, emotional performances. The actress, Betty Amann, who portrays the thief is especially good here, seducing both our officer and the viewer with just her eyes, showing a great range of emotion in close-up. The print on the DVD of this looks good, the orchestral score is really great and suits this to a tea. I have seen many, many silent films and I would certainly count this one among the best I've seen.
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!!!
Joe May's "Asphalt" is not as well remembered as the other masterpieces of German silent expressionist cinema, possibly due to the lack of immortals in the cast and its decidedly commercial scenario. But it certainly deserves a mention alongside the great works of Lang, Pabst, Murnau, et al. The cop-seduced-by-the-sexy-crook plot is the prototype for many a great (and not-so-great) film noir to come, and the seduction scene certainly packs a punch. Like most films of the time, it eventually descends into melodrama, but Gunther Rittau's remarkably mobile and probing camera is so skillful in revealing the characters' thoughts and lending pathos to their plight that he and the director transcend the clichés in the manner of Stahl and Ophuls, with some Langian irony peeking through at times. The opening profile of the city is a justly famed visual tour-de-force, but the stark, expressionist compositions that highlight the climax are just as striking and iconic. May never made the big time in Hollywood, but spun a few good programmers for the B picture mill.
I wasn't familiar with the work of director Joe May - apart from THE
INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940) and the Silent epic THE Indian TOMB
(1921), a film I was disappointed by and which I always considered more
of a Fritz Lang film anyway - although I had always been intrigued by
this one and, now, thanks to Eureka and "Masters Of Cinema", I've
managed to catch up with it.
From watching ASPHALT - followed, in short order, by SPIONE (1928) and TARTUFFE (1925) - I've reacquainted myself with the peerless craftsmanship of German cinema during the 1920s; indeed, May's film is technically quite irreproachable - particularly his depiction of city-life by night, but also the opening montage (echoing contemporaneous Russian cinema) which forms part of the title sequence. Apart from this, the film's slight but compelling plot later became a staple of the noir genre where a naïve man is embroiled in the sordid life of a femme fatale with tragic consequences (the most obvious example, ironically enough, being perhaps Fritz Lang's superlative THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW ).
In this regard, the film benefits greatly from the perfect casting of the two roles but especially the captivating Betty Amann, who effortlessly exudes sexuality throughout: distracting the elderly owner of the jewel shop with her considerable charms, while casually concealing one of the precious rocks in the tip of her umbrella; seducing the young, inexperienced traffic cop by excusing herself from his presence but, when he follows her into the bedroom, finds she has slipped under the sheets and is waiting for him; when he tries to leave, she literally leaps on him and, by wrapping herself around his waist, making it practically impossible for him not to give in to her. Also notable is a brief pickpocketing scene at the beginning featuring Hans Albers; the rather violent fight between the boy and the girl's elderly associate/lover, when the latter comes back to her apartment and catches them in flagrante, in which the furniture (conveniently held by visible wires) gets literally thrown around the room; the concluding act, then, marked by a number of twists (which lead to a sort of happy ending more akin to Bresson's spiritually-infused PICKPOCKET  than the hard-boiled noirs it inspired), is enormously satisfying.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Produced by Murnau, and brilliantly directed by May, this silent drama is a masterpiece of cinematography. From the opening montages, with workmen tamping down hot asphalt and the steamrollers behind them and the rain-wet streets shining in the street lights, to the traffic slanting across the street while the young policeman directs traffic, to the change in the lighting at his home after he feels he has fallenhe stands in shadow while down the hall in a halo of light his mother is busy in the kitchen, as if he were observing another worldto the expressionist shadows on the staircases toward the endit's magnificently conceived and photographed. The lighting effects are astonishing. The story is not profound, involving an upright young traffic policeman falling under the spell of a diamond-thieving courtesan (Bette Amman), and when they are surprised in her bedroom by her regular lover, an older diplomat, who hurls the woman to the ground, the young man defends her, and himself, with the result that the man dies. He goes home and tells his parents he has killed a man, and the father, also a policeman, stands up, puts on his dress helmet, and they go downtown. But the woman intervenes, calmly incriminating herself to save the young man. She is taken away to prison, but the young man says he will wait for her, and she looks at him with eyes brimming with tears, and a smile. Amman has impossibly big dark eyes and a helmet of bobbed, curly hair. Her cloche hats give her head a sculptural look, and she also moves sometimes with astonishing sensual power, as when she throws herself on the young policeman, winding her arms around his neck, her toes clinging to his boot-tops, her huge luminous eyes inches from his. In the early part of the film she is hard and manipulative, but at the end she has been shaken by real feeling and humanized. Okay, it's an old story, riddled with cliché, but in this treatment it works, largely because the film is so beautifully shot.
UFA helmer Joe May, once spoken of in tandem with F W Murnau or Fritz Lang, ended his career struggling for gigs on B-list Hollywood fodder. But this late silent, a superb psychological meller lovingly restored with a fine new score on KINO DVD, shows him in top form. It's the old story of a naive cop corrupted by a shady lady. He bends the rules for a night of love. But when her rich lover returns, tragedy strikes, and his disgrace can only be erased through her redemption. Thrillingly designed & shot in a studio-created Berlin, May uses the camera with Murnau-like freedom & expressivity, only stumbling over the pacing of a few scenes he has trouble ending. Gustav Frohlich will always be stamped by his silly perf in Lang's METROPOLIS, but in this more naturalistic mode, he's touching & handsome. As the femme fatale, Betty Amann leaves an odd taste. She's an obvious precursor/model for Liza Minnelli's Sally Bowles in CABARET (had Bob Fosse seen this film?), but she's also a dead ringer for Tony Curtis in his drag mode in Billy Wilder's SOME LIKE IT HOT. Perhaps not as much of a stretch as it sounds since Wilder was @ UFA in '29 and even wrote May's first Hollywood pic. (05/13/07)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Asphalt (1929) begins stylishly with a city montage sequence and plenty of Germanic-styled subjective point of view shots before giving way to a more subdued, intimate Kammerspiel style. A Clara Bow/Louise Brooks look-a-like (Betty Amann) is shopping for jewelry. The storeowner, entranced by her salacious behavior, does not notice when a handful of diamonds fall to the floor. The woman uses the hollowed out bottom of her umbrella to steal one of the diamonds. She is eventually caught, but pleads poverty, which convinces the shopkeeper not to press charges. However, the arresting officer, played by Gustav Fröhlich, plays by the books and insists on bringing her to the police station. The woman asks if they can go by her apartment for her papers. Once in her apartment the seduction begins full throttle. The entrance into her sexual den is given special treatment with a slow, circular panning shot from the officer's point of view. His resistance is admirable, but not impenetrable. She tries everything, including lying in wait in her bed. When all seems to fail and the officer is about to leave she hops out of the bed and literally jumps into his arms, melting his final resolve with passionate stares and heavy breathing. The theme is a common one in German expressionism: the fall/degeneration of the moral upstanding male at the hands of a woman (Pandora's Box, Blue Angel) or social forces (The Last Laugh, The Last Command, American but Germanic in feel). But May handles it subtly and with an erotic-sexual undertone one finds most strikingly in German cinema of the late twenties (Blue Angel, Pandora's Box, Metropolis, Variety, etc.). The film also reflects social critic Siegfried Kracauer's point on pre-Hitler German cinema about the presence of the weak male figure. The young officer's moral and ethical resolve is broken down by the woman's sexual advances, to the point where he accidentally murders the woman's gangster lover in a fist fight after he returns home to unexpectedly find him there (the murder is shot through a mirror reflection). However, when the policeman returns home and tells his parents, the father, also a policeman, does not hesitate to don his police uniform and arrest his son. In the end, the police officer is exonerated by the woman's guilt of complicity. She is arrested, and the final image sees her walking away along a corridor filmed through a prison-like door. As an historical aside, in an underground scene where city workers lay out asphalt, we see a sinewy camera movement along the ground that foreshadows the similar documentary-like camera movements in Pabst's Kammeradscahft (1931).
In Berlin, the dedicated traffic officer Albert Holk (Gustav Fröhlich)
is a young man that lives with his parents. When the elegant and
charming Else Kramer (Betty Amann) shoplifts a diamond in the Bergen
Jewelry, the officer arrests her despite the request of the owner to
release the youngster after retrieving the stone. They take a cab to
the police station and Else first cries and then she unsuccessfully
tries to seduce the uncorrupted officer. When they are in front of the
precinct, Else asks Albert to go to her house first to get her
documents. The reluctant officer finally accepts her request to go to
her apartment and once there, she seduces him. On the next day, Albert
feels guilty for failing on his duty. Else decides to return his
documents that she had stolen in the previous night with a box of
cigars. When the carrier delivers the envelope to Albert, he goes to
Else's apartment offended with the bribe. But sooner he succumbs to the
gorgeous lady and proposes her. Else questions the future of a
policeman with a thief and shows that she stole the diamond for greed
and not for need. Meanwhile, Else's lover Konsul Langen (Hans Adalbert
Schlettow) returns from Paris where he had heisted the safe of a bank
and finds Albert and Else together in her apartment. When Konsul pushes
Else on the floor, Albert defends her and himself and their fight lead
to a tragic conclusion.
"Asphalt" is a dramatic German silent film and an early film-noir. The gorgeous dark-haired Betty Amann is one of the most expressive actresses I have ever seen, and her eyes are amazing in the close-ups. The sequence in the taxi with the tears in her eyes is fantastic. Her performance is remarkable and her character certainly is one of the first femme fatales of the cinema history. The dilemma of Albert Holk, shared between his duty and the seductive woman, is one of the best moments of this film. This film registers the streets of Berlin in the late 20's with a great traffic of buses and automobiles and crowded streets. The music score of this highly recommended DVD is also awesome. My vote is eight.
Title (Brazil): "Asfalto" ("Asphalt")
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Weinoir and the Ufa Style
The emergence of Ufa as Germany's dominant film production company in 1921 brought a unifying, identifiable look and character to Weimar film. Parallels may be drawn between this development in German film history and the consolidation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in Hollywood. Both studios formed as the result of larger partners, consolidating with smaller companies, to create what were in effect, monopolies. Ufa, formed in 1917, purchased many smaller studios, most notably Decla-Bioscop in 1921, bringing with it producer Erich Pommer who was running Ufa within two years. Similarly, Marcus Loew's Metro bought out Mayer Pictures in 1924, bringing Louis B. Mayer's young phenom, Irving Thalberg along as MGM's head of production. Both studios, Ufa in Germany (including greater Europe) and MGM in North America, defined the standards for motion pictures in their respective markets and exerted considerable influence.
Beyond their initial successes however, the two mega-studios took increasingly divergent paths. As severe economic depression smothered the Weimar Republic, Germany's film industry struggled to survive, losing key talent (Lubitch, Leni, Murnau) from their ranks to the wealth and prosperity of Hollywood. While MGM thrived, Fritz Lang's futuristic nightmare, Metropolis (1927) failed at the box office, leaving Ufa teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. In spite of their financial hardships, German filmmakers flourished creatively throughout the nineteen-twenties. Ufa films consistently evoked a dark, architectural and Gothic style with features such as Varieté (1925), Faust (1926) and Asphalt (1929), making use of brilliant creative advances in art direction and production design, which in turn would significantly influence Hollywood.
Monday January 29, 7:00pm, The Paramount Theater
A frenzy of murderous violence and moral turpitude lurk just beneath the urban order of Asphalt (1929). Joe May (The Indian Tomb, 1921) wrote (as Fred Majo) and directed this Ufa pot-boiler about a beautiful thief and the cop she seduces to stay out of jail.
The controlled chaos of the city is seen through a series of abstract images, beginning with the boots of workmen as they pound hot asphalt into a flat surface. In a montage of crane shots that soar over pedestrians and traffic, May introduces the hard intensity of city life. The camera descends slowly to the street where Sergeant Albert Holk, played by Gustav Fröhlich (Metropolis, 1927) is directing traffic from a concrete island. Naïve and inexperienced, Albert still lives with his Mother (Else Heller) and Father (Albert Steinrück), a Chief Sergeant. The young policeman commands the speeding cars, trucks and buses with confident authority and measured control. On a sidewalk, pickpockets work a crowd of onlookers, distracted by a young woman in lingerie as she moves behind a storefront window. In a jewelry store around the corner, Elsa Kramer (Betty Amann) examines several large diamonds on a velvet cloth while the gray-haired jeweler stands waiting. She flirts with the old man and while he blushes, she cleverly steals a jewel. Within seconds of her leaving the jeweler's son chases Elsa down and summons the closest policeman, which happens to be Albert. When the diamond is found (on the tip of Elsa's umbrella) Albert arrests her and they rush outside to a waiting car. Through her histrionics, Elsa persuades Albert to take her home so she can collect her identification papers. As they enter her apartment, the implied understanding of Elsa's profession is followed by Albert's seduction, and his moral foundations crumble.
Hostility in a modern world, consuming sexuality, crime, and its consequences are the solid building blocks of Joe May's Asphalt, produced by Erich Pommer, photographed by Günther Rittau (Siegfried, 1924 Metropolis 1927, The Blue Angel 1930), with art direction by Erich Kettelhut (The Indian Tomb 1921, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler 1922, Metropolis & Berlin, Symphony of a Big City 1927). Lotte Eisner observed that Asphalt " is a cogent example of the use that Ufa commercial films made of the results of artistic research. May uses everything." A dark and moody love story, Asphalt clearly influenced and anticipates the coming of film noir.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This late German silent film, Asphalt, was incredibly fun! It's an
amazing treasure and treat for the eyes (and ears: it boasts a
marvelous jazz score on the DVD that is perfect for the film!). No
spoken dialogue needed in Asphalt to communicate sensuality, and in
fact dialogue would ruin the intensity of this incredible film. An
added plus is seeing Berlin in 1929, with all its decadence before
National Socialist Hitler moved in and spoiled things in 1933.
Starring the adorable, funny, and sensual Betty Amann, and the handsome Gustav Fröhlich from Metropolis, Asphalt tells the story of a puritan traffic cop (Gustav) who is tempted to sin with a jewel thief (Betty). His devoted parents trust him entirely and maybe that's part of his problem: he's been pampered and treated like a pet more than a son, obviously cushioned from much unpleasantry in life. In fact the father of the cop has his own pet, a little canary in a cage, and the mother of the cop has her son for her pet! In the art of silent film the director can emphasize small things like these and keep the audience's interest perked through symbolism. In sound films there rarely seems to be time devoted to this kind of creativity.
My favorite scene is the long one where the cop has arrested the jewel thief and she cries and cries and cries (with the music making moaning sounds that are hilarious) and she tries to win his sympathy. She tries every trick in her book to keep from being taken to the police station. She begs him to take her to her apartment so she can get her papers. Exasperated with her, he does so. Once there the poor cop doesn't stand a chance. The climax of that scene really stunned me. I could swear Betty Amann said the F word, though of course I could be wrong because the film is German. ;) There's a somewhat predictable ending but it's how the director, Joe May, spins it all together, with artful, passionate camera-work, that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
The two leads give incredible performances, especially Betty Amann. She had even more fire and intelligence in her portrayal of the jewel thief than any performance I've seen given by Clara Bow or Louise Brooks. Her career should have been better. The only other film I've seen her in is an early Hitchcock sound film Rich and Strange (1931). Gustav Fröhlich also shows a more tender side here than in Metropolis.
A marvelous late German silent that must be seen to be believed. If you haven't watched it yet you are REALLY missing out! Don't get turned off by the unromantic title. Get it today!
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