A crippled mailman is in love with a maid who lives in the same building he does in one of the city's poor neighborhoods. She, however, is in love with a wealthy, handsome young man. ...
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Gabriel de Gravone
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A crippled mailman is in love with a maid who lives in the same building he does in one of the city's poor neighborhoods. She, however, is in love with a wealthy, handsome young man. Desperate to win her love, he begins to intercept love letters they send to each other and replaces them with his own messages, which each thinks is from the other. His plan seems to be succeeding, but then something happens that bring tragic results to them all.Written by
The absolute incomprehension (sometimes comical because of the contradictions)shown by many of the commentators on this film (the notable exception is of course the exquisite Von Galitzen) is really rather sad but not I think so surprising. We are a long way here from the US cinema tradition and in the vanguard of the synthesis between the naturalistic (known in Germany as "neue Sachligkeit") and the non-realist (variously surrealist, expressionist, futurist) that will characterise the finest flowering of European film in the decade that follows and will continue to inform "social realism" (Russia), "poetic realism" (France), neo-realism (thirties Japan and post-war Italy) and "new wave" (France, Eastern Europe, Japan, Iran) right into modern times.
This film is a little gem, a dark reverse-fairy tale, bleak as a winter morning, told with much compassion but with a merciless absence of sentimentality. It mixes elements of the naturalistic and the non-realistic (broadly "expressionistic") in a very typical manner. There is for instance a very deliberate and highly effective contrast between the acting style of Henny Porten and that of the two men. Every shot is stunning and there is interest in every small element of its mise en scène.
Jessner was basically a man of the theatre (director of the Berlin Staatstheater) but there is a completely fluid relationship between theatre and film in Weimar Germany and the influence of theatre (to be found in all German films of the period) does not in the least mean that the films are "uncinematic". Quite the contrary. The principle of mise en scène developed in the naturalistic theatre demands precisely that the director's approach should reflect the medium he or she is using (one finds the same for instance with the very cinematic films of André Antoine, the doyen of French naturalistic theatre) So the political symbolism of the famous "Jessenscher treppen" was already well known from the director's work in the theatre but is here, with the help of Leni's superb sets and the expert camera-work of Willy Hameister and Karl Hasselmann given a supremely cinematic function that will frequently be copied in later German films of the period.
The film has a small set, virtually no titles, only three actors for most of its length but there is a great freedom allowed to the spectator to construct for him of herself the context of the action, a context that lives in the various inanimate objects that represent a presence of others never seen (the shoes, the plates, the glassware, the table-setting, the flowers, the punch) as well as in the Chinese shadows" occasionally seen in the room(s) beyond. The famous stair are not the only powerful symbol. Another is the small half-moon shaped barred window for which, as far as I know there is no word in English but which s called in French a "soupirail" and is a feature to basement flats throughout Continental Europe and will turn up as commonly as the backstairs in the films of the period.
It is one of the great films of the year which also saw Lang's Der müde Tod, Lubitsch's Die Bergkatze, Pick's Scherben, Murnau's Der Gang in der nacht, Buchetowski's Sappho, Carl Theodor Dreyer's Blade af Satans Bog, Feyder's L'Atlantide, the Asta Nielsen Hamlet, Sjöström's Phantom Carriage, Stiller's Johan. Altogether a very remarkable year for European cinema.
In the US there were several fine comedy classics (an area in which the US no longer had any rivals) but otherwise....Blood and Sand and The Sheik, The Three Musketeers, Little Lord Fauntleroy and Molly O' - puerile fun but not much else.
Of "serious" films, Tol'able David by the still much-undervalued Henry King stands out but even this film has something of that quality of false, mythologising sentimentality that is the curse of US film. It was unsurprisingly a favourite film of John Ford's.
In 1923 Pickford would invite Lubitsch to the US to try and inject adult content into her films (it did not work) and in 1926 the great F.W. Murnau would be persuaded to come.
Briefly the US glimpses the possibility of a rather different cinema (so Sunrise, Paul Fejos' Lonesome, King Vidor's The Crowd) but the attempt will attract great hostility from the production companies and never take, the effort to do anything different in US film being definitively abandoned (at least till the time of Orson Welles) with the advent of sound in 1928-9. Sound, the emergence of a new generation of young actors from the theatre (Cagney, Bogart, Tracy etc) and the arrival in large numbers of German, Austrian and Hungarian directors after 1933) all do combine to produce much more adult content in US films but it will now always have to be contained and confined within the limits of the dominant "realistic" mode.
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