Sunday 21 August 2022

Asta addicted… Laster der Menschheit (The Vice of Humanity) (1927), with Filmsirup, Bonn Silent Film Festival

Weimar films never cease to amaze and there was clearly a different tolerance for subject matter in Germany at this time. This film deals overtly with drug addiction and features graphic scenes of both cocaine use and its euphoric impact as well as the longer-term devastation. All this is done in a dramatically convincing way and without the moralising outrage of, say, Reefer Madness and more puerile efforts of American films to get audiences to just say no.


No, here we have one of the finest actors of her generation, Asta Nielsen, acting out the message as part of her character’s general tragedy; her failure to face down the weakness that led to her requiring the “prop” to support her acting career as well as her decision to abandon family for theatrical success. It’s an old, old story but in the hands of Die Asta we believe it all over again.


Part of the success is in the extended sequence showing her performing Salome on stage as, unbeknownst to her (and us) her daughter sits watching, astonished at her stage craft, as are we all. Asta could be a great stage actor as we see but, as the story progresses, we watch her character, Tamara, break down with the kind of visceral psycho-physical implosion, very few could match then or now. Those who saw the BFI’s wonderful season earlier this year will recognise the style of this closing sequence and also the fact that whilst it’s different every time, it’s also never less than moving. In dramatic terms, Asta was her own special affect.


Die Asta abides...

The film has been unseen for many years and this new digital restoration by Cinematek, Belgian Film Archive, is the most complete version since the censors first set eyes on the debauchery, based on their 1993 restoration, this has new title cards and is as crisp as human-digitally possible, with live accompaniment from Bonn-based Filmsirup, who mix electronics with a range of instruments to cinematic effect, this digital stream of the live screening the day before engaged this watcher, 415 miles away.


The film begins on All Souls Day as Baron Beythen (Charles Willy Kayser) and his family gather in gloom to remember his late wife. His daughter Marleine (Elizza La Porta) asks to hear one of her recordings and mournfully places the 78 on the record player, imagining again the woman she never met and yet who had such a special talent. But all is not as it seems as the Baron’s sister (Sybille Lerchenfeld) reveals her discomfort at the fact that the Baron’s wife is not dead at all, just erased form existence at his will, to “protect” his daughter.


“… to let her say prayers for the dead for a living person is a sin!”


Elizza La Porta's Marleine listens to her mother's voice

Their friends arrive in the form of Mrs. von Führing (Trude Hesterberg) and her children, Hannah (Carla Meissner) and Victor (Ekkehard Arendt) who want to take Marleine to the theatre to see the sensational opera star, Tamara (Asta Nielsen) in that stunning performance of Salome… can you see where this is going? The whole sequence is an interesting one with director Rudolf Meinert making the most of the chance to direct the opera and also the audience with Marleine and Hannah watching the action with binoculars that just as easily could be pointed at the audience. It’s a brief meditation on the relationship between the film’s main purpose and any baser interpretation – you, watch this, we mean it…


Sure enough, in a break between scenes Tamara, wearying, begs the newly-arrived Mangol (Alfred Abel) for a pick me-up before the finale. He duly hands her a sachet of white power, she sniffs it and the opera swings to it’s conclusion. Meanwhile Marleine, not used to being let free, drinks the whole story in, especially when Salome kisses the detached head of John the Baptist; she’s mesmerised by the power of the performance and can’t wait to get the star’s autograph.


Alfred Abel is having a ball

We move on to an after-show party at Mangol and Tamara’s mansion where a number of revellers receive the former’s discrete packages in exchange for money and potentially a lot more. It’s not just the young but also an elderly man in tuxedo, no doubt a pillar of society – perhaps a conservative politician? - who needs some extra energy. Irises are fully dilated and Mangol passes through his society with a knowing smirk, master of most he surveys, controlling supply, creating demand. All this passes the youngsters by but Mangol stops dead when he sees Marleine, here’s someone new to pull into his orbit.


Tamara meanwhile is exhausted and strung out as Mangol’s maid Li (Maria Forescu in yellow face, the film being introduced with a trigger warning covering this and other "attitudes of the time") struggles to prepare her for her audience downstairs. She duly arrives like a pro and signs autographs including one for Marleine who, pestered by Mangol – Alfred Abel absolutely killing it as the embodiment of capitalist evil, he even twists his hair to give a demonic impression – is already vulnerable to his powers of persuasion.


But, almost immediately, there is a bond between Tamara and the young woman, especially after she sings… then, as Mangol makes his mischievous moves, a recording of Tamara sounds just like her late mother’s voice…


Mangol helps Marleine sniff his new oportunity...

I won’t spoil any further, but the action is well paced and Asta provides that operatic emotionality which lifts the story and the message over the closing parts of the film. Also present is Werner Krauss as a “cocainist” customer of Mangol’s who brings a strange physicality to the role of a man clearly hollowed out through addiction as he arrives in search of more drugs from the man who clearly has no further use for him.


Ludwig Lippert’s cinematography greatly adds to the mostly studio-based atmosphere and there are late period camera tricks aplenty including a lovely montage of night life and plenty of perfectly lit interiors that almost, but not quite, present as “expressionist” (Lotte Eisner would probably disagree).


I enjoyed Filmsirup’s score and it ranged occasionally towards post-rock whilst also including some Barrett/Gilmour type psychedelic slide guitar from Michael Hendricks. When the composition and players are this attentive, left-field accompaniments can work and the whole group contributed to a range of orchestration that properly matched the subject matter and the message. Hendricks also plays piano and provides tape loops whilst there’s Christian Carazo-Ziegler (xylophone, electro beats), Matthias André (bass, synth) and Matthias Kaufmann (cello, bass). I look froward to hearing more of their work!

Werner Krauss is haunted


Another quality presentation from Bonn in a week that has already seen the mighty Stephen Horne and Elizabeth Jane Baldry accompanying deMille’s Male and Female (1919) and Ellen Richter in Moral (1928) – recently screened at Pordenone - as well as solo Stephen on Francesca Bertini’s restored classic Assunta Spina (1915).


We’ve also seen Blind Husbands (1919) – an excellent restoration shown in Bologna as well as Fritz Lang’s Die Vier um die Frau/Four Around the Woman (1921) on which, more later.


You can still stream some of the performances and films up until the 24th but you be quick as the films are only available for two days after screenings.


Full details are here on the festival site.

Screenings are broadcast via wireless waves that cross the entire globe!!

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