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.
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