Walking home from a shift, policeman Gustav Froehlich ("Metropolis") notices a ruckus at a jewelry store; inside Amann has just been busted for lifting a diamond, and faithful to his job, despite being off duty, he takes her in. But the taxi ride to the station is just enough time for the girl to weave her seductive magic on the young man, and soon enough they are back at her swank apartment, clutched in a melodramatic clinch. Naturally, this leads to bad consequences, and lives are ruined on seemingly minor lies and actions.
Director Joe May, a longtime veteran hardly mentioned in history books today, grasps onto the dying aesthetic of Expressionism, and the opening shots of Berlin, a bustling city of pavement, cars, and humanity, could be straight out of "The Man with the Movie Camera", but this is more of a romantic melodrama in which the participants get jerked around for letting their emotions dictate their actions, and in it's lush production, could stand along Sternberg, Stroheim, and Murnau for visual pop.
"Asphalt" est l'un des films fondateurs du genre que l'on appellera plus tard "Film Noir"; cette histoire de l'officier de loi vertueux qui se voit corrompu par les jeux de séduction d'une maligne enquiquineuse sera familière à plusieurs, à la différence que le film de Joe May adopte une posture plutôt morale et se termine de manière sinon joyeuse, du moins pas totalement dénuée d'espoir.
Si ce film n'est pas aussi connu que les grands films de Lang, Murnau, Pabst et cie, c'est sans doute parce qu'il manque de stars pour le mettre en valeur (bien que le protagoniste soit joué par le même acteur que celui de "Metropolis"). Toutefois, le jeu des acteurs est assez nuancé pour un film muet, particulièrement celui de Betty Amann qui n'est pas sans rappeler Louise Brooks ou Clara Bow. En tous cas, on aime.
The late '20s were the peak of silent art, perhaps prophetically. Even in the days before the shift to sound began in 1927 masterpieces such as 'Sunrise' were defining the finesse of the motion picture. All the natural and unfathomable beauty of a passionate fire had been extinguished in favour of a cheap, flickering light bulb. Audiences were more easily seduced by the novelty of seeing and hearing people talk on screen than the more profound artistry of telling a story without words (minus the necessary intertitle or two.) Yet, after almost a century, these silent masterpieces show exactly why audiences could so easily abandon them.
It's a unique trait for cinema in the 1920s: you can take on the most lurid, sensationalist, pulpy melodrama that any amateur screenwriter knocked up in five minutes and almost completely ignore it in favour of savouring the visual impact you've created. 'Sunrise', 'Seventh Heaven', 'The Docks of New York', 'The Wind', 'The Crowd', 'Pandora's Box', 'Diary of a Country Girl', all are founded on the kind of mushy sentimentality that would make even Chaplin or Sirk throw up. 'Asphalt' is no different, and because of it, something about it just doesn't feel right. It's like watching a college drama production, or reading Victorian novels, or even listening to the average pop song; it's so over-the-top and high-flown that you can't possible take it seriously. These are the customs of a bygone age, when extreme emotions were seen as daring and romantic because people didn't act like that in real life. Only, they do, and people these days don't want to be treated to something loud purporting to be real, when we all know real life is low-key and subtle, most of the time anyway. As such, 'Asphalt' doesn't nearly capture the heart in its scenes of flailing and floundering, but it does in other places, and this is the secret of why these brilliant silent films still hold their own as towering works of art.
Joe May's luxuriant sets indeed impress, if only for the fact that he purposely built an entire city intersection only to show it onscreen for less than 15 minutes. But it's everything else that makes the film so delicious. Gunther Rittau's awe-inspiring cinematography is a masterwork of New Objectivity craftsmanship, glazing everything in a beautiful, soft, angelic light so shiny that even Frohlich's ordinary fingernails sparkle magnificently. German cinema of the late '20s was a bizarre fusion of the emo-angst of Expressionism and the purer, more aesthetic nature of New Objectivity. In 'Asphalt' it's evident in style, the way the sets are mostly geometric and how the actors remain stationary or very composed whenever possible; interestingly, the actor's never seem to bend or twist, remaining upright at all times. It perfectly mirrors the nature of fashion in the 1920s in general: artificial, stylish, made to show off naturally human beauty rather than use people to compliment the clothes.
It's very easy to fall in love with, and so is the wonderful cast. Gustav Frohlich as the towering 'Holk' takes centre stage here, and he's a joy to watch after his insufferable histrionics in Lang's 'Metropolis'. Built like a bodybuilder, he looms over all and sundry, yet his floppy humanism exposes his tiger as a frail pussycat. It's a little humiliating, to see such emasculation, but then this wasn't a decade particularly good for championing the virtues and qualities of men. As such, it falls to Betty Amann to provide the film's class to Frohlich's emotion. She is intensely beautiful, almost unbearably so, and provides an interesting contrast to Louise Brooks' similar image the same year. Whereas Brooks was typically American with her playful attitude, world-weariness and dynamite curves, Amann is much more a product of the '20s rather than a trend -setter, far removed of Brooks' sexual vulgarity. Amann's body is sleek and cylindrical, emphasising her facial features, her hair puffy and tousled coyly, her dresses tight but loose in length. This is the epitome of mainstream '20s fashion, different from Brooks' visibly personalised style. Amann is also caked in heavy-lidded make up and an almost melancholy shade of lip-stick; Brooks saves all her beauty for that hungry twinkle in her eyes. Both women, however, are enormously talented actresses, and Amann gives her bored thief a warm sweetness, diluting any of the nastiness her character suggests. When she cries and shivers fearfully in the denouement at the thought of going to jail somehow all this weary melodrama feels very real indeed. It's a testament to May's sensitivity as a director, but also to Amann and Frohlich's capabilities as actors. This powerful ability is cruelly overlooked when re-examining the dreariness of these stories. There was a time when audiences really fell in love with those silent gods and godesses of the silver screen.
Today, watch any of these movies with a pinch of salt, but watch them nonetheless, because they're every bit as culturally unique and important as any Next Big Thing that swaggers into the film world. It's a homely comfort knowing the Cinema of Shadows remains as good as any of the best movies throughout history.
Rearfirma la grandiosa consigna del cine mudo, una imagen vale por mil palabras.