Monday, 19 October 2015

The spice of life… Variety (1925), Stephen Horne, BFI, London Film Festival

“The strongest and most inspiring drama that has ever been told by the evanescent shadows…”

After the red-carpeted glamour of the LFF Archive Gala back to the concrete picture palace that we still call the National Film Theatre and a matinee performance of one of the defining moments of Weimar cinema. I’ve held off watching Variety in the hope of seeing it on screen and with live accompaniment from someone as uniquely adept as Mr Horne: there were apparently some new “talkies” on show in the Festival but this was one of the must-see events of the week.

My patience was doubly rewarded by the fact that this is a film re-born following extensive restoration by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, in co-operation with the Filmarchiv Austria, using nitrate prints and duplicate negatives to create something as crisp and fresh as one of Herr Jannings’ leotards on the first day of filming!

In her introduction Bryony Dixon suggested that you could view Variety as the German leg of a loose trilogy of Ewald Andre Dupont films dealing with the seedier end of show business, the other two being the delicious Piccadilly (1929) and Moulin Rouge (1928). He had a fine eye for the sub-cultural and was helped by the technical imagination of his cinematographer Karl W. Freund who, of course worked on so many great films of the period including The Last Laugh and Metropolis.

Fireworks above and below
Here Freund along with Carl Hoffmann, produced some impossible shots amongst the acrobats on the flying trapeze. It’s hard to imagine the technicolour circus dramas-to-come bettering these moments as you really feel the pressure, the sheer physical improbability of these daredevils connecting with each other, their apparatus or achieving a triple somersault whilst blind-folded and in a sack…  There’s no safety net… and, squirming in my seat, I had a vivid flash back to childhood anxiety watching similar acts at the Blackpool Tower Circus (and there was me thinking I was over that!?).

The family caravan
As Mordaunt Hall fizzed in his New York Times review:  “…there is a marvellous wealth of detail: the lighting effects and camera work cause one to reflect that occasionally the screen may be connected with art.”

Well I would venture that it is more than occasionally as the core of Variety’s appeal is in the performances of the three leads.  Emil Jannings’ presence is first felt at the beginning as you watch the back of a long-imprisoned man walking with a defeated gait, strong shoulders at a stoop, head bowed, to yet another parole meeting in prison. We don’t see Jannings' character’s face but we know how hard his life is… his wife and son are willing to have him back but he has to open up about his crime.

Emile's expressive back...
Finally he does and the film cuts back to the full-faced, confident circus huckster that Jannings’ character, Boss Huller, was before… He seems content living with his baby and wife (Maly Delschaft), running a side-show beauty pageant that attracts the drunks and the old men, but once he soared until a fall left him hospitalised and he longs to return to the heights.

Lya De Putti
To his door is brought a young woman who has been rescued from a ship wreck and destitution. She catches the eye of both husband and wife and the former over-rules the latter when he spots a talent he can use: a genuine attraction in all ways…

The woman (Lya De Putti) is named Bertha after the ship of bad luck from which she was rescued: as new names go it’s not the most re-assuring. She drives their barely-controllable audience wild and Boss decides enough is enough.

Meanwhile Bertha attracts Boss closer to her and as his wife foretold from first sight, he cannot resist this appeal. Too poor to buy a motorcycle and not in possession of a PA to run off with, Boss decides to go back to the trapeze and leaves wife and child to run away with Bertha.

They build up their act in fairgrounds and soon get noticed in Berlin by a British acrobat Artinelli (Warwick Ward) short of a partner following his brother’s fall from on high. Soon they are three and are wowing the audiences in Berlin’s massive Wintergarten theatre.

But success brings its own costs and soon Bertha is spending more time with the younger man leaving Boss at home to darn her tights and to wait for her return. 

No profession is based as much on trust as theirs and yet whilst they depend so much on each other to stay alive they fail to protect each other’s interests on the ground… This is a triangle of trust that can only lead to tragedy if it breaks down.

Clearly it might but possibly not in the way you might expect as even their manager cannot bear to watch the triple twist anymore…

It is a superbly well-balanced film that is a well-practiced as the performers it portrays: Dupont manages to balance the dramatics with deeply personal performances which are especially rich from De Putti as well as Jannings: she matches him for intensity and tells her story in reverse revealing more of her strength as the story progresses while his ebbs away to leave only murderous desperation…

None of the three protagonists are anything other than true to themselves: Artinelli is artful, Bertha wild and Boss a force of his will… the greatest pity is that they met each other.

Stephen Horne took all of this in his surefooted stride and maintained a balance of his own between the low swings of fury and the lovers’ leaps. There is an amazing level of “content” in his improvisations especially when compared to a pre-prepared score: but then he does play up to four instruments almost all at the same time…

I’ll leave the last word to Mr Hall - “Scene after scene unlocks a flood of thoughts, and although the nature of the principal characters is far from pleasing; the glimpses one obtains are so true to life that they are not repellent.” I don’t think I’ve ever read “Mordy” so enthused but he had every right to be.

The restored Variety is available on Blu-ray and DVD from with English subs and a modern soundtrack that is by all accounts of un-paralleled clunker – maybe Stephen could make his improvised score available for download?

No comments:

Post a Comment