If you've read the book, this film version comes as a surprise - how does it manage to make so little of so much? Or is it so much of so little? Döblin co-authored the screenplay, which compresses his sprawling novel into a breathless eighty-eight minutes. Of course, much is sacrificed, but the skeleton plot still compares favourably to that of many modern movies. Technically, too, this flick has aged magnificently - considering this is one of the first German films with sound, what we see and hear is a lot smoother than I'd expected. The cinematography is astonishing by the standards of the decades that followed: there's an opening sequence of our hero (played by Heinrich George, a huge bear of an actor) just out of jail, dizzied by the speed of a tram and the chaos of the surrounding traffic, which is almost as vertiginous as "Vertigo". Reminds one that 1931 was the year of Fritz Lang's "M". Was film a more experimental art form then than it is now? It was also fascinating to see how modern the Berlin of seventy years ago still looks: true, the men have moustaches, and there are horses on the streets, and there isn't a single phone call in the plot, and the actors don't look like models, at least not all of them, thank goodness; but the villains could be straight from Hollywood, as could the fast cars, the glossy ads all over the buildings, the bars, the knee-length skirts and short bobs, and above all the sheer tempo of city life. It was a hugely enjoyable experience and gave me a better idea of the times my grandparents grew up in.
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