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Café Elektric (1927)
Social Mobility is a Two-Way Street
Were it not for Marlene Dietrich's appearance in this film, CAFE ELEKTRIC would be an unlikely candidate for a DVD release, especially considering that it is incomplete (the restoration done by the Filmarchiv Austria summarizes the missing ending). Yet this film by Gustav Ucickythe son of the painter Gustav Klimtis really an ensemble melodrama, with Dietrich no more the star than the other featured actors (her legs, however, do receive plenty of screen time).
The story concerns the interaction between two poles of contemporary Viennese society (not Berlin, as a fellow reviewer mistakenly states): the upper-crust bourgeoisie, represented by the capitalist Göttlinger (Fritz Albert) and his daughter Erni (Dietrich); and the prostitutes and petty criminals that hang around the Café Elektric. Of these, we are introduced to Fredl (Willi Forst), a pickpocket who's always short on cash, and his sometime girlfriend Hansi (Nina Vanna), who longs to escape from her circumstances. In the course of the film, Erni and Hansi's fates play out in counterpoint with each other, although the two never actually meet. While Hansi struggles upward towards societal respectability in a life with Max (Igo Sym), Erni descends from her privileged existence thanks to the negative influence of Fredl.
Ucicky's direction is competent but not remarkable or visually distinctive. The most sympathetic character is Hansi, both because her plight gives us someone to root for, and due to the charismatic performance given by the lovely Nina Vanna. Silent film accompanist Gerhard Gruber provides an excellent piano score on the Austrian DVD edition.
The Girl of Gold (1925)
"Girl of Gold Left Out In Cold"
THE GIRL OF GOLD is a fast-paced programmer (lasting about 50 minutes) that emphasizes melodramatic plot over any pretense of incisive character development or the ethical dilemmas presented by the story. The direction by John Ince (older brother of Thomas and Ralph) is workmanlike and largely unremarkable; the production design rather generic but not cheap-looking.
Having made his fortune in the western gold mines, Lucius Merrimore (Charles French) moves to New York with his daughter Helen (a blonde Florence Vidor). While Merrimore's successes continue as a result of ruthless Wall Street maneuvers, Helen quickly finds herself ostracized as a parvenu by the established social class who dub her "the Girl of Gold." Helen tells her father she wants to escape from her life of privilege--in which men see her only as a dollar sign--and marry the first man who loves her just for herself. This rash outburst inspires Merrimore to concoct a plan involving Schuyler Livingstone (Malcolm McGregor), a young man whose family fortune has recently been wiped out by Merrimore's manipulation of the financial markets. Merrimore feels a pang of guilt when he learns the plight of Schulyer's now destitute sister (Bessie Eyton) and her ailing son, and decides to offer $100,000 if Schulyer will marry Helen. Schulyer is outraged at such a proposal, but his sister convinces him to agree.
Meanwhile, ignorant of her father's deal with Schuyler, Helen has accepted an invitation to attend a weekend house party in Newport, seeing this as her opportunity to shed her "girl of gold" image and present herself instead as a poor cousin. When Schuyler and his sister inevitably show up at the same house party, he is of course enchanted by "Helen Wheeler," while his sister reminds him of his obligation to marry "Helen Merrimore" (whom he has never seen) and secure the $100,000. It doesn't help matters that the hostess of the party is an old flame of Schuyler's and that she is married to an extremely jealous husband...
This being melodrama, the plot continues at break-neck speed, with one twist and revelation after the next. The climax occurs in a night club built somehow into a gold mine. Of course there is never any doubt about whether all of this will end well for "the Girl of Gold," and for 50 minutes the journey is quite enjoyable. This film asks nothing more.
Die Heimkehr des Odysseus (1918)
Henny Porten does comedy!
Henny Porten, who was *the* German film star of the 1910s, is typically defined today by roles that were steeped in classic melodrama, suffering, and noble angst. Here, in this delightful film from 1918, she proves that she was also an effective comedienne. DIE HEIMKEHR DES ODYSSEUS ("The Homecoming of Odysseus") takes as its inspiration the famous Penelope episode from Homer's /Odyssey/ and transplants it to the present-day Bavarian Alps.
The story begins with a prologue, as the wedding day of Josepha (Henny Porten) and Hansl (Bruno Decarli) is eagerly anticipated by all. Hansl, however, without telling anyone, decides to go climb a mountain, thus delaying the wedding and causing Josepha much embarrassment. When Hansl finally returns to the village (with a bouquet of Edelweiss in tow), Josepha is fuming mad, and after the ceremony she tells him off. He leaves in a huff, before the marriage can be consummated. Ten years pass, and Hansl has never returned to the village. Josepha is the proprietress of the inn, and must endure the blatant come-ons of all the single men on the mountain. They insist she forget about Hansl and marry one of them. Josepha is a feisty woman, though, given to pulling pranks on her potential suitors, all of whom she finds distasteful. She dreams that her true love will one day return to her. Meanwhile, a bearded stranger pops up at various times and in various places, with a definite interest in Josepha...
Although the situations in this film are played as comedy, the echo of real-life circumstances surrounding men missing in action or held in prisoner-of-war camps during World War I surely resonated with audiences. Josepha, who must fend for herself in the absence of her husband, yet who always remains faithful to him, can be seen as a kind of model for contemporary women, encouraging them to follow her example.
The dialogue in this film appears as Bavarian dialect in the intertitles. In addition to the "locals," there is also an interloper who appears -- Alois Buttermilch (Arthur Bergen), who speaks in the Berlin dialect. This is a thoroughly enjoyable picture, well-paced, clear (if somewhat stereotypical) characterizations, and fine performances from the cast. Director Rudolf Biebrach even appears in the film as, oddly enough, the Man in the Moon.
Harry Piel: the Douglas Fairbanks of Weimar cinema
Harry Piel was one of the major stars of German cinema in the 1910s and 1920s, though most people have probably never heard of him today. Because Weimar-era cinema is typically linked with the Expressionist era of the early 1920s or the Neue Sachlichkeit movement of the later years of that decade, films and directors who did not fit that mold are often excluded from the traditional narrative.
Piel's ZIGANO (1925) shows no trace of Expressionist, psychological angst, and makes no attempt to tell its story through realism or social criticism (though one could make a stretch in drawing comparisons to the Napoleonic-era occupation of the Rhineland and the presence of the French in post-Treaty of Versailles Germany). First and foremost, ZIGANO is pure entertainment. It is highly reminiscent of the costumed swashbuckler epics that Douglas Fairbanks was turning out in Hollywood. Zigano is one part THE MARK OF ZORRO and one part ROBIN HOOD.
Set during the Napoleonic wars, the film tells the story of Benito (Harry Piel), a sensitive young man, raised by his mother and taught to be a morally upright, self-sacrificing Christian. Yet when confronted with the injustices committed by the occupying French soldiers, Benito must reject his "turn the other cheek" indoctrination and learn (astonishingly quickly) to fight back. Benito becomes embroiled in a conflict between the French soldiers and a band of outlaws (who in these desperate times are considered heroes by the local peasants). In coming to the aid of the robber chieftain Zigano, Benito practically single- handedly defeats a gang of French soldiers. Zigano, however, is killed by a sniper. The robber band elects Benito as their new leader--their new "Zigano." An intrigue is underway at one of the German courts, and it's up to Zigano to prove the faithfulness and innocence of the damsel in distress (Dary Holm) and to expose the villainous Ganossa (Fritz Greiner).
The film is overlong (approximately 125 minutes), just as the above-mentioned Fairbanks epics tend to be, but Harry Piel manages to convey enough on-screen charisma (he even winks at the audience with a knowing tongue-in-cheek attitude) and matinée-idol good looks to charm the ladies in the audience, and to provide enough action and derring-do to satisfy the boyfriends. ZIGANO is not a masterpiece, but it is an example of the kind of lavish spectacles that entertained German audiences in the 1920s, and a reminder that German silent cinema was more than NOSFERATU and METROPOLIS.
Und wieder 48 (1948)
How to come to terms with History
The scene: Berlin, 1948. In the midst of the ruined city, a movie about the revolutions of 1848 is being produced. Several university students are employed as extras, among them the medical student Heinz Althaus (Ernst Wilhelm Borchert) and Else Weber (Inge von Wangenheim), who is studying German history. At first they interact with reserve, though Heinz's attraction to the intelligent, beautiful Else is clear from the start; her passion and interest in the ideals of the '48ers intrigues him, forcing him to confront his own stance regarding one's relationship to history.
UND WIEDER 48! is an erudite film, made at a time when many Germans would have rather brushed aside their history, even as they were removing the rubble of their destroyed cities. Gustav von Wangenheim (here as director, earlier star of the Weimar cinema) draws extensive parallels between the Germany of 1948 and the as-yet non-existent Germany of 1848. Scenes alternate between "today" and "then", either as represented in the fictitious film under production, or as imagined by the characters involved in the project.
UND WIEDER 48! is also a film about Berlin; several scenes were shot on location. Here one can see the Berliner Dom, the Humboldt University, and even the ruins of the Stadtschloss, all as they looked in 1948. The film's final scene takes place at the Wartburg fortress in Thüringen.
Inge von Wangenheim (the director's wife) is unquestionably the star of this film. Her performance is so natural, her bearing so graceful, it is unfortunate that she did not continue a career in film acting. Ernst Wilhelm Borchert also delivers a fine performance. It is a fascinating film from many perspectives; one that deserves to be better known.
Algol - Tragödie der Macht (1920)
Turning Power into Might
The early 21st century has witnessed increasing debate about the world's energy resources; the production, control and distribution of oil and electricity carries not only political and financial implications, but ethical ones as well. Hans Werckmeister's ALGOL, made shortly after the first World War, when coal shortages and rising energy costs were crippling the already hard-hit Weimar Republic (Germany), is a mirror of contemporary concerns surrounding the technology of the modern age.
The alien-demon Algol's "gift" to Robert Herne, the hard-working coal-miner (played by Emil Jannings), is the secret to building a perpetual energy source powerful enough to light the whole world. Yet Robert Herne ultimately is seduced by the power this device brings him as the "ruler of the world", and refuses to surrender the secrets of the machine for the good of mankind. Robert's ideological counterpart is Maria (Hanna Ralph), his one-time girlfriend and co-worker in the coal mine, who disapproves of his greed and retreats to a neighboring agrarian country to live off the land. This contrast between industrialized modernity (typically represented by decadent, stylized Expressionist sets) and traditional agrarian society (represented by naturalism, scenes shot outdoors, and use of realistic sets) is a striking aspect of Werckmeister's film. The construction of the narrative (consisting of a prologue and four acts) is carefully balanced, with effective character development. Direction, photography, and performances are all uniformly excellent. The (perhaps too abrupt) ending brings about an epiphany for Robert Herne, who comments ironically on his fate.
Von morgens bis mitternacht (1920)
Insightful adaptation of Kaiser's Expressionist drama
Georg Kaiser's VON MORGENS BIS MITTERNACHTS (written in 1912, first performed in 1917) is one of the masterworks of German Expressionist drama, an artistic movement of the early 20th century which emphasized the psychological or "spiritual" (in the sense of the German word "seelisch") suffering of the subject. Kaiser's play thus assumes the form of a "Stationendrama" (station play), i.e. a series of episodes (modelled after the Stations of the Cross in the Christian tradition), each of which culminates in a kind of spiritual revelation, propelling the protagonist onward to the next "station". Death is typically the inevitable final destination on the journey.
Karlheinz Martin's film adaptation remains largely faithful to Kaiser's play (minus the rich dialog of course), and indeed adds some insightful touches, especially in the opening scene in the bank vaults. The set decoration is ultra-Expressionistic, even more so than that found in Robert Wiene's DAS CABINET DES DR. CALIGARI (produced more or less around the same time), perhaps reflecting actual stage sets used for contemporary productions of the play. The omnipresence of Death (and its connection to women) is emphasized through the multiple characters portrayed by one actress (Roma Bahn). Ernst Deutsch, as the Cashier, is particularly effective in conveying the grasping, despairing nature of the character -- a man whose life is controlled by money and a petty bourgeois mentality, and whose attempts to overcome this enslavement prove impossible.
Astute viewers who are familiar with CALIGARI will spot Hans Heinrich von Twardowski in the role of the Son of the Lady (he played the doomed friend Alan in Wiene's film).
VON MORGENS BIS MITTERNACHTS has an odd history. Never officially released in Germany at the time of its production, it found contemporary success in Japan, then was believed lost for decades until its rediscovery in the 1960s.
An example of Borzage's romantic realism
My fellow reviewers have done so much justice to this fine film that I hesitated to submit my own thoughts, since many of them would be quite redundant. I therefore will not comment so much on the story itself in this review, but instead concentrate on some of the aesthetic qualities of the film.
The careful attention to period detail is one of the salient features of LAZYBONES. Produced in 1925, but telling a story that reaches back to the turn-of-the-century and advances to "now," it genuinely captures the look of each era it portrays. Often films made in the 1920s but set, say, before the War (WWI), look very different from actual films produced in 1914 -- we can see it in the clothes and the hairstyles. In LAZYBONES this is not the case. Even the characters age believably as the decades advance (only Kit is portrayed by different actresses as she grows up). Buck Jones's transformation from a teenager to an almost middle-aged man is especially noteworthy.
Another strength of Borzage's direction is his strong evocation of place. His rural America is steeped in romanticism -- so stylized and yet so personal as to exist both everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. One is left with the feeling that these characters -- especially Steve (Buck Jones) and his mother (Edythe Chapman) -- are inextricably linked with the languid atmosphere of their environment. This quality is also reflected in Borzage's lingering, empathetic close-ups that seem to stretch time beyond its natural bounds. The scene in which Ruth (Zasu Pitts) passes by Steve's house in the carriage, catching a glimpse of her daughter, is one such example. This moment -- consisting of only a few seconds in real time -- is frozen as Borzage focuses on the emotions displayed in the expressions of Ruth, Steve, and Kit (Virginia Marshall). The reunion scene when Steve returns from the war is certainly every bit the equal of the one near the end of Vidor's THE BIG PARADE, and is another prime example of "stretching time" for dramatic effect.
In contrast to such Borzage silent masterpieces as 7TH HEAVEN, STREET ANGEL, and LUCKY STAR, I would classify LAZYBONES as a film fundamentally grounded in realism (note the prominent use of real exteriors instead of studio back-lot sets). At the same time, however, Borzage flavors the whole work with a wistful romanticism that is never cloying but somehow manages to capture the dream-like qualities of our own nostalgic memories: snapshot moments, tinged at times with melancholy, at times with happiness.
Dressed to Kill (1928)
These are gangsters... not gangstas
Actually, the word that is used throughout this 1928 film is "Mob," not gangster. The characters, settings, and plot of DRESSED TO KILL would all become staple elements of the Hollywood gangster film, and are indelibly linked to late 1920s-early 1930s popular culture; I almost expected Dick Tracy to show up and clean up this racket.
Here, however, the police is far from being depicted as heroic or even competent. Instead we are introduced to a bevy of tuxedo-clad, cigarette-smoking tough guys with nicknames like Silky and Ritzy, whose boss--played by the suave Edmund Lowe--always manages to evade implication in the crimes he masterminds. Ever conscious of "stool-pigeons" and women in general, the rest of the Mob is leery when Barry (Lowe) decides to take on a new "associate" as the gang's "stall moll" (the beautiful Mary Astor).
The story is minimal, though there is a nice twist with Astor's character--and Lowe's final decision seems somewhat incredible in light of how long he has known his "moll." Irving Cummings (who also directed Astor and Ben Bard in ROMANCE OF THE UNDERWORLD, another 1928 gangster flick for Fox Studios), brings some stylish touches to the film, creating moods of tension and menace through lingering, extensive close-ups.
The film unfortunately ends later than it should have. I have the feeling that the studio (or someone in charge) ordered the rather ridiculous last scene to be shot in order to ensure that all the criminals received their comeuppance. The scene immediately before this was surely intended as the end of the film; left as such, it would have left a more powerful impact.
Conrad in Quest of His Youth (1920)
"Dreamer... There is no road back to seventeen..."
Conrad (Thomas Meighan) is suffering a mid-life crisis. Having just returned to his native England after a military position in India, he is overcome with unhappiness, realizing that he no longer feels like the man he used to be. Believing his happiest days were those of his youth, he attempts to re-capture the sensations he remembers so vividly. Yet despite his efforts, it proves impossible to return to the land of the past. Milk and porridge no longer taste as delicious as they once did; the childhood sweetheart has become a doting matron; and the mature woman who was once the object of a seventeen-year old boy's passionate crush has also aged, even as he has.
The fourth act of this story introduces a new character whose path inevitably crosses with Conrad's. Again the contrasts of youth and age, memory and reality play a role in their interaction.
William De Mille's direction is lyrical and perfectly paced. Conrad's nostalgic quest for lost time is at once both gently mocked and sympathetically presented. The performances are uniformly excellent, especially Meighan's.