E. A. Dupont (director)
23 January 2017 (released)
27 January 2017
This German silent movie from 1925 is perhaps not as well known as the 1929 melodrama Pandora’s Box say, however Varietè it has the iconic Emil Jannings in the lead role to boot, as well as some terrific circus acts!
The opening shot brings us to a prison where murderer Huller (E. Jannings) is shown a letter by the prison warden. The letter is from Huller’s estranged wife who asks for forgiveness and release of this broken man who has spent the past ten years of his life as ‘Prisoner Nr. 28’ (the number on the back of his shirt seems far to decorative for a sober prison uniform though that’s a minor criticism). After some probing and well-meant ‘poking’ Huller finally reveals his full story to the warden and via flashback we’re now transported back to Hamburg ten years earlier where the actual story begins. Boss Huller, a former bona fide trapeze artist (though that is a little hard to believe with Jannings’ bulky physique) runs a cheap and seedy little side-show circus with his loyal wife (Maly Delschaft). The couple also have a newly born baby to look after and generally struggle to make ends meet. The tone is set right from the beginning when the camera pans across the dishevelled punters who are predominantly male and some of the unfortunate young women earning their meagre income as ‘erotic sensations’ in Hullers’ circus. One evening a friend of Hullers, who is employed as a seaman, returns from San Francisco and has brought with him an orphaned young woman called Berta-Marie (Lya De Putti) who seems to have Huller under her spell the minute he sets eyes on her. Despite the protests of Frau Huller he insists that Berta should remain as he plans to present her as the circus’ latest sensation. Watching De Putti dance makes you wonder how she got the part in the first place… no feeling for rhythm and movement whatsoever and we’re supposed to believe this Venus Flytrap is capable of enchanting an entire audience with her wooden dance routines? Roll on, Mata Hari! That said, the kind of punters Huller lures into the tent probably couldn’t tell the difference anyway.
We already know what’s going to happen next before Hullers knows it: Berta spins her charms and spells and despite his initial and short-lived doubts he decides to leave wife and baby to run off with Berta. Arriving in Berlin, Huller immediately makes plans to take up his former and more ‘glamorous’ career as a trapeze artist, in his case as a ‘catcher’. His trapeze partner is of course Berta to whom he’s now married though it’s never explained how and where the woman gained the expertise and years of practise to perform somersaults and what have you high in the air! When distinguished trapeze artist Artinelli (Warwick Ward) also arrives at Berlin’s prestigious Wintergarten Theatre (which was destroyed during WW2) he’s not a happy man because his artistic partner had an accident in London during a performance… consequently Artinelli is unable to perform in the Wintergarten because he’s one partner short of a full act. Despair not! When a clever manager steers him towards Huller and Berta he’s at first reluctant but upon seeing them perform he proposes to henceforth appear as ‘The Three Artinellis’ – something that puts Huller and Berta in a very prestigious position. Life seems great again at first though the scheming Artinelli is after Berta (once again we can see it coming before Huller does!) and during one extremely unsettling scene he lures the unsuspecting woman into his room and rapes her. In the next scene we see him and her enjoying a glass of champagne in a bar – with Huller present – and Berta not only acts as if nothing happened but later on she and Artinelli become romantically involved (would you with a man who raped you?!). As the weeks go by Berta comes up with all sorts of excuses as to why she’s returning back late while her dope of a husband is naïve and trusting enough to suggest she should go out dancing with Artinelli and have some fun… while Holler takes to the local gambling halls. Alas… when tongues begin to wag he finally wakes up to the truth and the inevitable happens: yes, murder though I won’t give away any more details now.
Jannings is of course as superb as one expects him to be, De Putti finally gets a chance to stretch her acting abilities in the second half and Warwick Ward gets his scheming scoundrel expressions spot on. Plenty of entertainment, eh, variety numbers from the likes of ‘The Flying Codanas’ and a troupe of gifted Chinese plate spinners to name but a few acts. The music (which we see but don’t hear) is provided by Alex Hyde and His Original New York Jazz Orchestra.
This new and digitally restored 2K Dual Format offers the original German film version with three different scores to choose from: Stephen Horne, Johannes Sonntag and The Tiger Lillies though is must be said the latter seems somewhat of an odd choice as lead vocalist Martyn Jacques’ distinctive voice and singing distract from reading the English subtitles… and god knows reading the English subtitles is difficult enough here as more often then not they tend to run across the German inter-titles! Thankfully there’s always the fourth option of watching the American version which may not look as crisp and as sharp as the three others but at least here the inter-titles are in English and therefore no faffing about!