At last, an expressionist silent classic that takes full advantage of cinematic principles. The legendary E.A. Dupont goes in for subjective-emotional effects of which Hitchcock would approve, and cameraman Karl Freund and effects wizard Eugen Schüfftan pull off spectacular visuals and special effects. No wonder this was a huge hit in America, it’s way ahead of its time (and ours, in some ways).
1925 / Color tinted / 1:33 Silent Ap / 95 min. / Street Date August 22, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Emil Jannings, Maly Delschaft, Lya De Putti, Warwick Ward, Alice Hechy, Georg John, Kurt Gerron.
Cinematography: Karl Freund, Karl Hoffman
Art Director: Alfred Junge, Oscar Friedrich Werndorff
Visual Effects: Eugen Schüfftan
Original Music: Erno Rapee
From the book Der Eid des Stephan Huller by Felix Hollaender
Produced by Erich Pommer
Written and Directed by E. A. Dupont
We carefully studied this show in film school, in a mangled 16mm print missing big pieces of continuity. It barely mattered, as what director E.A. Dupont was doing in every other shot was riveting. If Alfred Hitchcock really was hanging about Berlin at this time, this might be the kind of movie that made a big impression on him. Always cited as an important silent picture but not often revived, Dupont’s 1925 Varieté definitely impressed us. David Bradley showed us plenty of Clarence Brown pictures, but the ones I recall crying out ‘real cinema’ were this show, Kirsanoff’s Ménilmontant and Pabst’s The Love of Jeanne Ney. Each had scenes in which ‘images + editing’ resulted in something fantastic.
Ewald André Dupont could do no wrong in silent pictures, but his career fell apart with the coming of sound and unsuccessful attempts to transplant himself in Hollywood and England. In 1925 his use of the camera in storytelling was hailed everywhere, even America where Variety was a big success. The story Dupont adapted is not complicated. After serving many years in prison, Convict 28 (Emil Jannings) comes up for parole, and has a chance for release if he’ll finally tell what happened so long ago. The convict was Boss Huller, a carnival-circus aerialist who has quit the high wire after an injury. Boss loves his new baby and is happy with his Frau (Maly Delschaft) until a sailor friend (Georg John) brings him an orphaned foreign girl (Lya De Putti). The sailors couldn’t talk to her, so they named her after the ship, Bertha-Marie. The girl becomes an exotic dancer for the Midway; Boss cannot resist her enticements and is seduced. He leaves his beloved wife and child and returns to the high wire with Bertha-Marie as his partner. They’re doing fine together in the small carnival until an agent hooks them up with major circus star, Artinelli (Warwick Ward), who recently lost his partner in an accident. ‘The Three Artinellis’ are a great success. But Bertha-Marie respects her relationship with Boss no more than she did his previous marriage . . . and Artinelli has a roving eye.
I can’t think of a better movie to demonstrate how a good silent picture communicates, as opposed to a talking picture that just relies on dialogue. Varieté has few scenes and few dialogue inter-titles; most everything is communicated through the stylized acting and the psychologically ‘active’ camera. Emil Jannings’ performance is 90% externalization of feelings — there’s no information being given, just emotions. Boss reacts to his wife, and then he reacts to his baby. We see what a gentle and caring soul he is, and he also makes a human connection with us. Then Bertha-Marie nails Boss Huller’s attention with her large, dark eyes, and he is lost. We see him resist but the attraction is too great. The basic emotions flowing across Janning’s face show a lot of nuance, and they cross all language barriers. Everyone understands Boss Huller’s situation as a prisoner, when his whole body seems to sag in shame. Everybody can follow Boss’s thoughts when he covets the desirable Bertha-Marie. Emil Jannings isn’t a handsome man, but his acting makes us identify strongly with him. If this guy can desert the baby he loves so much, he’s clearly acting under an irresistible compulsion.
Lya De Putti’s exotic girl first shows up in a blanket, because her only clothing is a halter-top and a sarong-like skirt. We have no idea where she’s from, but we learn soon discover her talent for attracting men. In the first scene we see that the carnival’s girlie sideshow is a miserable assortment of wasted, exhausted women, who look as if they’re starving, or are drug addicts. Bertha-Marie smiles mysteriously, and when dancing sways like a hoochie-koo dream girl. No suggestive moves are needed to hook the crowds of grimy men. Even the women in the audience seem fascinated.
The silent movies knew no shortage of expressive actors. What makes Varieté so different is what Dupont does with his camera. It doesn’t record scenes as much as get into the thick of the character interaction, recording the drama. I see Dupont using two progressive techniques. The camera often puts us in a subjective position, showing us what Boss sees and feels. Critics were impressed by the picture’s carnality — Boss is attracted to Bertha-Marie’s exposed shoulders and midriff. He stares, and the camera cuts to specific details of what he sees. Forget angles that show the full set, or full bodies; we see lots of close-ups and often parts of bodies. Even the close-ups of Jannings’ reactions are in tight, and framed to eliminate distractions. In one scene Boss looks at various parts of Bertha-Marie, and then at his wife, who just doesn’t have the same appeal. These wordless moments are intimate, psychological. We can imagine what Boss might be thinking, and we share the experience. Cameraman Karl Freund deserves a lot of credit, considering the depth-of-field issues with the insensitive silent film stock. The main thing Hitchcock added to the subjective camera technique is movement — when a moving Hitchcock character is intercut with a moving shot of what he sees, the we-are-there illusion is enhanced. Are we being pulled or pushed? Is the person in control, or is it the camera itself?
I don’t see modern directors using this subjective technique much, unless somebody is exploring a haunted house. The reigning style for quite a while has been neutral realism, with docu like coverage: Moonlight, for instance. Dupont’s 2nd technique is simply to get in closer to the immediate subject at hand, be it a face or an object, to the exclusion of other factors. The average movie camera setup of 1925 stands back and watches the action from afar, as if each shot were a storybook illustration. Dupont crowds in on details, but we never lose sight of the context. Many of his objective shots of Boss and Bertha-Marie seem especially tight. A close-up of Bertha-Marie’s face from a high angle seems to change her expression. The actress doesn’t show a great variety of expression but in some shots her stare looks playful or affectionate, and in other it is lustful. As she’s something of a misogynist fantasy, a mystery girl and femme fatale, this is standard stuff. Boss is so much bigger and bulkier than Bertha-Marie that the tight shots of their embraces seem to squash her, even though we can see that she is in control of the situation. Boss is apparently too concentrated on his embrace to notice that she’s maneuvering his body so she can hide a piece of jewelry given her by Artinelli.
In the later café scene the carefree Boss plays cards, drinks and laughs, unaware that an artist who has seen Artinelli and Bertha-Marie together in the park is showing off a cartoon he’s drawn on a table cloth, depicting Boss as a cuckold. Some of the men are not amused but most think the cartoon is great sport. The artist’s expressions change as the fun drains from the situation and his playful malice becomes something else. When Boss finally sees the cartoon, his reaction is played off his back. This was reportedly a standard acting trick with Jannings, letting the audience see only his back at moments of high drama. Since we know what he’s upset about, we provide the drama.
Varieté also wowed audiences with its spectacular high wire acts, performed in a lowly carnival but also in the massive WIntergarten Palace theater, with the aerialists performing over the heads of the audience. Spectacle was of course nothing new to cinema but critics remarked on the realism involved. Just lighting those large interiors must have been a challenge, with Karl Freund finding a great balance between the unlit audience area and the performers in the spotlights. Here’s where the film’s most remarked-on images are found. Blurred shots expressing the daring aerial stunts are created by swinging a camera on a trapeze-like rig. Audiences thought these dizzying shots were incredible.
The spectacle is enhanced with a number of visual effects arranged by the German genius of the hour, Eugen Schüfftan. Men marching in a cold prison yard are surrounded by high walls that may be a painting or a foreground miniature. At least one and probably more wide shots of the carnival are multi-exposures of live action and models. I’d say a one-pass foreground miniature setup is unlikely, because even Schüfftan; couldn’t get the extreme depth of field needed for a night shot. [That, and we can see camera-weave movement between elements in the frame]. The wide views of the trapeze act in the theater interior are pretty amazing. On one hand, it all looks real. Nobody seems to be matted in. But is that even possible? The lighting is very careful, yet where are the lights, when the set has a ceiling? Modern cameramen will tell you that the old masters worked miracles to get shots and effects that can nowadays be whipped up on a desktop computer, and that some of their secrets amount to a Lost Art.
But Dupont goes beyond the wide spectacle to express the allure and sensuality of the trapeze act. The libidinous desires of the low-class slobs that watched Bertha-Marie dance were obvious, but here in high society we see grinning men staring at Bertha-Marie’s figure in her aerialist’s tights. A beaming woman appears to be checking out Boss’s muscular torso — the camera even imitates the slightly blurred view through some opera glasses. Another trick shot shows a quartet of binocular-users, with a silhouette of the three Artinellis reflected in each lens. And as if exercising a private joke, Dupont includes shots of audience members that have fallen asleep in the middle of the performance.
Double exposures enable Boss to imagine taking his revenge on Artinelli on the high wire. The dissolves intimate that Boss is imagining the sights we see; a push-in to his face seems all the more modern. Other shots at a drunken party go wild with double exposures, including kaleidoscope-like images of staring eyes, a fave German expressionist visual.
The murder climax slows to a crawl and stays focused on the enraged / calm face of Boss as he corners Artinelli in his rooms. Artinelli shakes and cowers and begs, but it’s Jannings’ scene all the way. It’s really the only predictable scene in the picture, and it’s also an audience-pleaser, as Boss Huller has ‘earned’ his right to take retribution. I’m not sure if a shot or two immediately after are missing, however. To me, I can’t tell if Bertha-Marie has just collapsed in horror, or has fallen and hurt herself, or if Huller has done something to her as well. Is a bit of film missing there?
The final scene is of a ‘doorway to light’ opening up for Boss, a pure silent-movie expressionist gag that persisted way into the sound era, whenever filmmakers needed to suggest a sacred passage from this world to the next, as in You Only Live Once and even The Robe, in CinemaScope. Hm, both those directors were of German origin.
The Kino Classics Blu-ray of Varieté looks far better than what was once available. With the exception of some scratched material and the occasional missing frame, the show seems intact — although in silent film it’s easy for random shots or whole scenes to go missing without being missed. One can’t judge completeness by running times, for it is easy to stretch or shrink a film by projecting it slower or faster. The IMDB isn’t much help, because the running times given for two different versions can’t be compared — one version is running at 24fps, and the other at 18. Only the measured footage of the film on the reels is reliable. We’re told that most of this presentation is from a surviving American negative in great condition; the Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung recovered German inter-titles from other prints and in some cases re-painted them.
Those German inter-titles are in a distinctive calligraphic style. They have been left intact, and are accompanied by removable English sub-titles. They’re easy to read and we still can appreciate the full flavor of the originals.
Kino Classics has not scrimped on extras. Their in-house expert Bret Wood has assembled a visual essay spelling out Dupont’s impressive filming style, and how it relates to Emil Jannings’ performance. He even points out how Dupont suggests sound in a silent film: when Artinelli is shown eavesdropping, the camera races in to a close-up of his ear. A longer making-of piece is actually about the production of the film’s impressive new music score, composed by Martyn Jacques. A number of music students contributed to the work.
Finally, Kino includes an entire extra silent feature, Othello (1922), starring Emil Jannings and Lya De Putti. It’s an excellent contrast & compare item that will make one appreciate E.A. Dupont’s cinematic approach to filmmaking.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Varieté Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: see above
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 3, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson