Sunday, 2 October 2011

Plus ça change... The Joyless Street (1925)

As a history student back in the day, I was constantly impressed with how little certain aspects of social and political life have changed. Focusing on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century period, it seemed like the debate on social equality, education and economic management hadn't actually moved on that much.

Now, as we stare down the barrel of another recessionary phase of this latest great depression, we appear to have regressed still closer to this period: the same debates about the "deserving poor", laissez faire economics and an ever widening gap between the classes. "We're in this together.." but we're not all taking the same degree of pain; those closer to the bread line, move that more quickly towards real suffering and depravation.

Even in the wealthiest of western economies, poverty still exists and we shouldn't take "progress" for granted or assume that it is a constant process.
So, in watching GW Pabst's The Joyless Street (Die freudlose Gasse) I am reminded again that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Based on Hugo Bettauer's immensely successful novel, the film takes what is essentially a crime story set against the backdrop of the post Great War depression in Vienna and develops its socio-political aspects. These resonate as much today as they would have done in Germany and Austria in the mid-20s. On a day when there are reports in the UK of increased demand for charitable food hand outs... we shouldn't assume that the bread line and the meat queue are far off for some of our citizens.
Willy Haas wrote the film's screen play and, having described the original book as "a miserable crime novel" said that what appealed to his director was "... the harsh social portrayal of inflation, the bankruptcy of the old-established patrician circles...the corruption, the moral decay..." The Joyless Street therefore focused on the "social" and a realistic portrayal of poverty and the consequences of mean-spirited capitalism and the greed that drove western-European economies.
To support this aim, Pabst assembled some of the best actors in Europe. Asta Nielsen was cast as Maria Lechner the daughter of a disabled father who lives in near poverty and who becomes entangled in the lives of the financiers running and ruining the economy. Then into her forties she was a stretch for this part of a young, innocent woman but her skill carries her through some memorable and powerful scenes even when the lighting and unforgiving close-ups can't.

Standing next to her in the forlorn queue for the butchers is Greta Rumfort, played, of course, by one Greta Gustafsson, fresh from Gosta Berling and not quite 20 years of age. This was the film that clinched her ticket to Hollywood and it's not hard to see why Mr Goldwyn was so impressed. She's superbly photographed by Pabst but is by now the force of nature that would captivate millions, she looks more like a star than in Gosta Berling and steels the show through her graceful emoting and haunting expression. If anything this is her proper "first album" a raw demonstration of ability that she would hone further but possibly at the expense of the energy she shows here.
Pabst apparently had to use slow motion to help counteract the impression created by the young actress's nerves and this combination served to create an impression of graceful edginess. Even if Stiller was on hand to help manage his protege, can it be a coincidence that Herr Pabst managed to enable defining performances of such power and beauty from both Garbo and Brooks?

The film features many strands and a large ensemble of skillfully-played characters. Werner Krauss is excellent as the Butcher, who rules Melchior Street by restricting the supply of meat to only those he favours: the wealthy or those women prepared to pay in kind.
The other ruler of the Street is Mrs. Greifer who is played by the extraordinary Valeska Gert, a dancer and cabaret artist who brings a great knowing energy to the screen - must see more of her! Mrs. Greifer runs a fashion boutique which acts as the front for a fairly high-class brothel. Many of the women of the street are drawn into Mrs. Greifer's, seemingly labyrinthine, premises driven by hunger and desperate poverty to subvert dignity in the service of selfish male greed.

Maria and Greta are both sucked into this world and only the good fortune of meeting a good man rescues the latter. Maria is betrayed by her own potential saviour and takes a revenge that seals her fate.

Greedy speculators set events on a roll by manipulating the stock market (nothing much changed there then...), the people of the street suffer whilst the bankers waltz around in opulent hotels and drink champagne in Greifer's salon. The common folk revolt and smash some windows whilst Maria's friend is driven to her death (and the murder of the butcher). She and her husband die in flames but manage to lower their baby to safety.
The baby will be looked after by those in the street and this is the hope at the end of the film: communal support is the way forward. That and responsible capitalism and, as always, love.

The Joyless Street was an understandably huge hit in its day and is one of the undoubted classics of Weimar cinema. I watched the restoration version from Edition Filmuseum and would recommend this. It comes with a wealth of extras including a lengthy documentary on Pabst, The Other Eye, a documentary on the painstaking restoration (the film was - literally - stuck together from five different sources!), outtakes (!!) and a 49 minute conversation with assistant director Mark Sorkin.

BFI have it in their shop and it's available direct from Germany here.

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