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Asphalt

by Glenn Erickson Apr 04, 2023

One of the last of the classic Weimar silents, Joe May’s melodrama is only partly expressionist; Günther Rittau’s terrific camerawork tells a ‘street’ story of crime and sex with minimal dialogue. Gustav Fröhlich is the green Berlin street cop and Betty Amman the vamp who sullies his badge; the story takes place in 24 hours and includes a slick bank heist in Paris. Producer Erich Pommer made sure nobody would forget this one soon: its legendary talking point is an enormous exterior street set, built inside a vast Zeppelin hangar.

 

Asphalt
Blu-ray
Kino Classics
1929 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 94 min. / Street Date March 7, 2023 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Gustav Fröhlich, Betty Amann, Albert Steinrück, Else Heller, Hans Adalbert Schlettow, Hans Albers, Arthur Duarte, Paul Hörbiger.
Cinematography: Günther Rittau
Art Director: Erich Kettlehut
Costume Design: René Hubert
Original Music: Willy Schmidt-Gentner
Music score 1995: Karl-Ernst Sasse
Written by Joe May, Hans Székely, Rolf E. Vanloo story by Vanloo
Produced by Erich Pommer
Directed by
Joe May

The high-quality video resurrection of classic German cinema continues. We’re happy that Blu-ray companies keep releasing the restoration output of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung and Deutsche Kinemathek. This latest title is one of the last silent films from the legendary producer Erich Pommer, a visionary showman with credits on more German classics than one can list, including the grandiose films of Fritz Lang.

1929’s Asphalt is a classic that was, we are told, rudely received by some when new, perhaps because sound pictures were already beginning to take hold. Critics accustomed to superlative German silents with grand themes wrote that the film’s elaborate visuals were applied to a story of little consequence. We’re told that this is the best picture of director Joe May. Although others may be responsible for the film’s great look, the romantic scenes are intense and the performances are excellent.

 

The main star is Gustav Fröhlich, the hübscher Hauptdarsteller who had played the emotional young heir to the city of Metropolis; he’s less demonstrative here but still a bit over-cooked. The alluring Hollywood comedienne Betty Amann was apparently brought to Berlin to enliven the sexy storyline, the same strategy as G.W. Pabst’s importation of American Louise Brooks, but on a less newsworthy level. Nevertheless, Miss Amann elicits the needed hormonal response, and then some.

It’s actually a little bit like Irma La Douce.

The simple story does indeed plays out within an incredibly elaborate production. Albert Holk (Gustav Fröhlich) is an inexperienced and idealistic Wachmeister (constable), and proud of his assignment directing traffic at a major Berlin intersection. He’s doted on by a happy mother (Else Heller) and father (Albert Steinrück), a retired Hauptwachtmeister (chief constable). Albert’s life changes when he arrests Else Kramer (Betty Amann), a slick con-woman who uses her sex appeal to steal a diamond from a fancy jewelry store. But Else convinces Albert to take her to her place ‘to pick up some papers,’ and uses the opportunity to seduce him. Albert goes home convinced he’s a ruined man, unworthy of his parents and his position of responsibility.

Else makes up stories about being helpless and desperate, but she’s really in league with the much bigger crook Langen (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), who calls himself a Consul and is concluding the commission of a daring bank robbery in Paris. Just the same, Else is touched by Albert’s purity, and sends back the passport she stole from him. He returns to Else’s luxury apartment to tell her off, only to be once again seduced. This time the fireworks are a sincere romantic impulse on Else’s part. What she doesn’t realize, however, is that the dangerous Langen is back from Paris, and nearing her door.

 

For years this reviewer wanted to see Asphalt based on an article by Peter Lähn in Film Architecture from Metropolis to Blade Runner, a large-format art book. In a disused Zeppelin hangar producer Pommer built a Berlin city street set said to be 45 by 230 meters in size. A full-scale boulevard teems with traffic and hundreds of extras pack the sidewalks. The roads inside were actually paved. A complete intersection is present, the buildings rise three stories tall and a massive doorway is used to simulate a view into a large building. Peter Lähn tells us that real companies put their logos on storefronts, such as a fully-stocked auto salesroom. The elaborate jewelry store set is actually attached to the big set in the hangar, with plenty of shots showing crowds milling outside.

Publicity claimed that the local electricity grid strained to power the set’s 23,000 incandescent bulbs. The giant set only makes sense when one realizes that commandeering and lighting a real city street would be impossible. And Pommer was committed to film artistry — he wanted to give his director ultimate control. Enough of the expressionist impulse still remained to leave nothing to documentary chance.

 

We certainly feel immersed in that set, with the camera prowling down the crowds and peering over the traffic. Yet cameraman Rittau’s angles never simply show off the real estate. After the enormous expense one would expect the whole show to take place on the crowded sidewalks and the dense traffic. But the set is barely seen after establishing the world of Asphalt in the film’s first third. The extravagance may have been Erich Pommer’s way of letting his previous bosses in Hollywood know that he could make pictures on a bigger scale than even MGM.

For sheer storytelling ease, May’s film is easier to follow than Pabst’s Pandora’s Box made the same year. Scenes often change with associative cuts that make logical sense. We have no trouble keeping up — even when we cut to another city and a new character, we know basically what’s going on without a major inter-title explanation. Director May emphasizes young Constable Holk’s dedication and also his lack of experience with women. May lets Betty Amann’s Else share the spotlight. Most of our attention goes to the effortless Else as she distracts the elderly jeweler, and then easily plays Holk for a fool.

 

Betty Amann certainly looks great, even if her makeup and hair are generic flapper – Clara Bow. She has playful eyes and a grabber of a smile, if not the immmediate allure of Marlene Dietrich or the fundamental magnetism of Clara Bow. Director May makes sure to accentuate Amann’s legs when she’s filching the diamond, and her tear-stained face when ensnaring Holk in the back of a cab. [Did Berlin cops not know the concept of backup?] Amman, Fröhlich and May then go all out with the racy, physical seduction scenes. As if to seal the deal, Else ensnares Holk by jumping into a bed undressed when he isn’t looking. She then literally leaps on him for an embrace, entwining her legs with his and knocking his helmet off as she kisses him. She’s no shrinking violet, that’s for sure.

Pommer and May clearly go for sex appeal, what with the scene of Else in her bath, asking her maid for a cigarette. But the emotional progression of the passionate affair is well played and well-filmed. Add one furniture-breaking parlor fight and a couple of scenes at home and at police headquarters, and it’s a simple but well-told story.

Also prominent in the cast are Rosa Valetti and Hans Albers of Sternberg’s The Blue Angel.  Each became an icon of the era;  Albers was Germany’s most popular matinee idol all the way to the end of the war. Commentator Anthony Slide’s actor bios explain on which side of Reich history the film’s personalities fell; Albers comes out untainted. Looking at his small role as a sophisticated street pickpocket, it’s obvious that he had the right style,  in just the right place and time, to become a top ladies’ man.

 

As if knowing that more is needed, Pommer, May and camerman Günther Rittau add several visual montages of Berlin street life filmed on real avenues, not the giant set. These contain Dutch angle shots and multi-image collage designs Rittau knew well from Metropolis. Commentator Anthony Slide says that some American critics thought this style was old hat, calling Asphalt a ‘strange artistic foreign film.’

A different kind of detour from the main storyline comes in a mostly intertitle-free sequence in Paris, where we see the commission of the bank robbery. Consul Langan oversees a gang that uses some bogus street repair to tunnel into a bank vault and crack a critical safety deposit box. It’s a smooth, technically astute series of planned shots.

The finale manages to ‘give love a chance’ even if somebody has to wait for somebody else to get out of jail. What seems astoundingly unjust now is the reveal of who did what, and who ends up in police custody. It’s a real spoiler, so we’ll save it for a footnote. *

 


 

Kino Classics Blu-ray of Asphalt is a welcome debut. Fifty years after film school, we’re finally seeing enough of the right films, in decent condition, to maybe risk an informed opinion or two. Asphalt was reportedly first restored to its original German length in 1995 by combining foreign-vaulted versions, especially a film copy supplied by a Russian archive. This newest restoration was done in 2015, probably stabilizing some shots. The picture looks great even if a few sequences are slightly granier. The excellent continuity reinstates shots that show how characters ‘got across rooms,’ etc.  The soundtrack accompaniment is an orchestral score, nicely done.

Although no video or text extras are included Kino has secured an excellent commentary from Anthony Slide, whose knowledge and judgment is such that small asides come off as thoughtful wisdom. Slide has the lowdown on every aspect of the picture, not just the main players and the story behind the extravagant set. I once worked with a descendant of Gustav Fröhlich and opera singer Gitta Alpar, who also knew of immigrant filmmaker Steven Székeley. She would have been happy to hear Slide’s story — quite possibly true — that actor Fröhlich once punched out Nazi Josef Goebbels in a dispute over a shared mistress.

Slide judges Asphalt as being a very good movie but not quite a classic, mainly because director Joe May wasn’t in the same league as the greats Pabst, Lubitsch, Lang, etc.. But Slide certainly calls out scenes where somebody is doing great things with the actors. The scenes in which Constable Holk interacts with his parents, as he confesses his misdeeds, are close to perfection.

Slide is also open and honest about his own observations. If he doesn’t know what a sequence or shot is supposed to be saying, he’ll say so. At one point Holk senior is doing some writing in a ledger that’s not explained — perhaps an extended bit of business was dropped?   Slide doesn’t recognize the club-like weapon in Albert’s hand, and asks if he’s the only one who does. It’s clearly the arm of a chair, broken during the parlor fight. I smile only because I know too well how many times I have completely, utterly misread a scene that everyone around me ‘gets.’

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Asphalt
Blu-ray
rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent 2.0 and 5.1 stereo
Supplements:
Audio commentary by Anthony Slide.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 1, 2023
(6910asph)

*   Spoiling the ending, plus extra thoughts: Constable Albert, out of uniform, fights Consul Langan in self-defense, mostly while Else is unconscious. The death blow to Langan is also self-defensive, but a fight is a fight, and still obviously a crime. Albert confesses to straight murder, but Else comes in voluntarily to clear his name, affirming that it was indeed self-defense. But, for crying out loud, SHE is arrested and HE is set free. That’s just insane, unless there’s a statute that women are always to blame when any kind of violence occurs. We almost expect to see a shot of the exonerated constable back directing traffic in his snazzy uniform, while Else passes by in a police wagon, staring at him through a barred window.CINESAVANT

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Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Ken

My interpretation of “Asphalt” ending is that Betty Amann’s testimony to exonerate her man includes details of her own long history of robbery. And that’s why she’s handed a jail sentence. Seeing it that way, the wrap-up no longer seems so unjust.

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