Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Sex in the city… Little Veronika (Innocence) (1929), John Sweeney, BFI, London Film Festival

The backgrounds in this film are a sight to behold, from the huge valleys of the Tyrol to the pre-war streets of Vienna and you just want to dive into the screen.

Directed by the obscure Robert Land, this is a rare film that deserves to be rediscovered, especially after the 2016 restoration by Filmarchiv Austria from a 35mm nitrate print, has done so much to put back the sense of scale in those epic landscapes. Not for nothing does Nikolaus Wostry, curator of the Austrian Film Archive describe it as Austria’s ‘most beautiful silent film’, and in addition to the wider angles, Land’s direction includes some marvellously “1929” camera-work.

At the start, there’s a breath-taking tracking shot that follows young Veronica as she sprints from her room, down the stairs to take her place at the dining table: it emphasises her youth and lust for life as well as her trajectory in the narrative… she doesn’t always anticipate and – literally – rushes into things. Then there is the new dress she receives from her aunt in the city; it’s a signifier of liberation and a leap into sexual maturity but then Land has lingered long enough on his leading lady for the lingerie to lead us on… Käthe von Nagy (so good in Rotaie (1929)) is at the centre of his direction and our gaze.

Veronika is about to take a trip to Vienna for her confirmation and the film is full of juxtapositions between rural innocence and city connivance that pre-figure the conflict to come. She is going to stay with her aunt who has been surprisingly successful in Vienna building up what looks like a thriving hotel business… only she’s not a hotelier. Rooms and beds are involved but they are not the primary components of the businesses’ transactions.

Aunty Rosi is well played by Maly Delschaft (The Last Laugh (1924) and many more) with regret etched into her face every time she looks at her niece. She and her sex workers are sympathetically painted, not debauched just desperate and not necessarily the victims of their “choices” … The film was based on a book by Felix Salten, who specialised in tales of Vienna’s brothel culture as well as Bambi… yes, Bambi, the deer, friendly with rabbits and squirrels. Salten clearly knew his subject matter as the usual moral judgements do not necessarily fall against the women in the film…

When Veronika arrives, she jumps up and down on Aunt Rosi’s bed like the child she still is – those pigtails also say so much! She prays in bed and Aunty Rosi joins her; praying for her lost innocence perhaps. A telling moment.

Käthe von Nagy
Rosi wants to protect her niece but given her clientele, it’s not long before she is noticed by the kind of men who come to the kind of place Aunty manages. Karl Forest plays an older gentleman who charms Veronika and she falls for him after a night of romance he wants to pay for… she doesn’t understand the nature of the relationship and her future hangs on the balance.

Käthe von Nagy gives a believability to the naïve Veronika and there’s more to the character than meets the eye as I said at the top - she’s eager to embrace life, even if it means making a mistake or two.

It is a very good-looking film and to return to Land’s cinematography; there is a quite lovely sequence near the end when Veronika is making her way through a glade of trees and the Sun is shining off the leaves, creating a dream-like haze reflecting Veronika’s perceptions. Let’s hope there’s more to be found from Robert Land.

John Sweeney accompanied and the sound of music filled those gorgeous valleys as easily as the Viennese dancehalls when I thought I caught a snatch of Blue Skies (written by Irving Berlin in 1926)? John has such range and control and he never overstays a theme, constantly moving the audience along with the picture first and foremost. He laid some thunderous chords as the train took Veronika from Vienna and then held back to let the visuals carry the drama: as with Miles Davis it’s the places Mr Sweeney doesn’t go that are so important and he always allows the story a chance to breathe.

We applaud but really, we should bow!

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