I saw 'The Carmen of Saint Pauli' in October 2007 at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy. The festival screened a print from the archive of the Cinémathèque Royale in Brussels with the original German intertitles.
This silent film, made in late 1928, had the bad luck to be released when it was clear that talkies were taking over: the film attracted little attention at its release, and languished in obscurity for decades. It's hardly a lost classic, but the movie has sufficient merit that it likely would have succeeded if it had been made and released as little as two years earlier.
Saint Pauli is the waterfront district of Hamburg, and was (at this time) also its red-light district: remember this the next time you get a thirst for a St Pauli Girl! The film's title is more misleading than it needs to be: Jenny Hummel is the 'Carmen' in this movie, but her character only vaguely parallels the heroine of Bizet's opera. She comes nearer to Carmen Jones in the Oscar Hammerstein version.
Klaus Brandt is an honest shipmaster, in command of the Alexandria. He is seduced by Jenny, the leader of a gang of thieves and smugglers. The crooks have picturesque nicknames such as 'The Doctor' and 'Tne Nipper'. Jenny has a nominally honest job in a local beer-hall as a front for her criminal activities. She entices Klaus to visit her at the beer-hall one night, causing him (rather stupidly, I thought) to leave his ship unguarded. (Is there no supercargo?)
While Klaus is with Jenny, her men loot the ship. As a result of this, Klaus's employer Rasmussen sacks him, and Klaus is now considered unemployable by any of the Hamburg shipping firms. He decides to ship out as a crewman on an Australian vessel, but he is so besotted with Jenny that he gets a job at her beer-hall instead.
From this point, the film moves into Emil Jannings territory -- specifically, 'The Blue Angel' -- with the virtuous Klaus gradually sinking into the much less virtuous milieu of St Pauli in general and Jenny's bar in particular. Eventually a murder is committed, and Klaus is framed for it.
SPOILERS COMING. Just when Jenny has started to rub off on Klaus, the rubbing goes the other way: Klaus's deep moral virtue (how did he ever become a shipmaster?) rubs off on Jenny. She finds the real murderer, clears Klaus and decides to reform herself so they can start a new life together. Oh, yes.
The terrible economy in Germany at this time (1928) led a lot of Germans into criminal activity just to stay alive, so I found Jenny's reformation rather contrived and simplistic. Although the interior scenes in this movie were shot in Berlin (at the Neubabelsberg studio), the exterior sequences were filmed on Hamburg's waterfront and in the real Saint Pauli: that stark gritty realism greatly enhances the early scenes of this movie, but this same realism makes Jenny's ultimate reformation seem that much more contrived and unlikely. Fritz Rasp is excellent as one of Jenny's henchmen. My rating for this movie is 7 out of 10.
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