Femme Fatale with ”sphalt�
By Rianne Hill Soriano
Taking its final bow for this year’s roster of German silent films, the German Silent Film Festival features the 1929 silent film ‘Asphalt’ accompanied by the music of Cynthia Alexander. Set in Berlin, the film tells the story of an alluring woman arrested for theft. This femme fatale with irresistibly enthralling eyes and supple skin seduces the young police officer who finally succumbs to her inevitable charm and lets her escape. This film keeps up to the silent era crime drama of the 1920�s. And as a simple morality tale played out through a straightforwardly melodramatic storyline, ‘Asphalt’ upholds purity of visual image that effectively touches human emotions in a classic way.
Under normal viewing conditions, the picture quality of this more than 75-year old film only shows slight aging problems. The images remain relatively okay. The greyscale tones keep up with the gleaming whites and deep dark blacks. Overall, its outstanding cinematography and production design still render excellently on the big screen. As a fine example of the characteristics and virtues of late German silent cinema, director Joe May promotes ‘Asphalt’ as very visual – with lots of facial close-ups, distinctive cutaways, softly filtered lighting, shadowy rooms and hallways, grand and stylized sets, elaborate locations and naturally blocked crowd scenes. ‘Asphalt’ opens with an interesting montage within the asphalt streets of 1920′s Berlin where workers pound the asphalt into the roads, where countless cars pass by the Berlin traffic zones and where the crowds of people throng past the glamorous shops situated all over the busy streets. These visuals open a scene-setting montage using all the effects and overlays that have been pioneered by May and his contemporaries (considerably the impressive visual effects during those times – coming from the golden period of silent cinema, just before the advent of the talkies). In this film, the fast moving crowds of people and traffic are all shown with interesting, overlapped and angled photography. These elements set the opening scene well as the lead characters are introduced in their natural working environment amidst the tough realities during those times.
Albert Holk (Gustav Fr�lich) is a straight policeman and traffic enforcer who maintains peace and order in the city amidst the harsh elements of the urban society in that area of Berlin. Else (Betty Amann), a dark-haired beauty with tantalizing eyes and gorgeous skin, is a shoplifter masked in her femme fatale looks. She gets caught of stealing a diamond after distracting the owner with her charms. And it is when these two characters meet that the initial turning point of the film arises. She attempts to use her captivating looks to seduce the officer into letting her off. Soon becoming emotionally involved with each other, the officer starts feeling guilt over letting pass on his duty to arrest her. The complication is further substantiated when Else’s other man goes back to Berlin from a crime operation in a bank in Paris.
The cast gives excellent, emotional performances. Betty Amann as Else seduces both the officer and the viewer with just her eyes showing a great range of emotion in her countless close-ups. Her effective acting works as a woman in control both in the dramatic and comic parts of the film. Her stance wields a powerful character supported by her ‘sob story and pleas’ in order to get what she wants. Gustav Fr�lich as the firm and straight police officer Albert Holk delivers well on screen as well. The determination of the young officer to carry out his duty and his struggle to overcome Else�s tempting offers works well on screen. After murdering Else’s lover, he is filled with remorse and turns to his father, a veteran police officer himself, and confesses everything. The police officer hands over his own son to justice. These conflicts between doing his duty as a policeman and his personal choices made mirror his father’s preference for him to pay for his mistakes. And in the end, the drama arises further when Else makes her own kind of sacrifice.
‘Asphalt’ is a film about the conflicts of love and duty. It takes the direction of portraying the characters in scales of gray. The social circumstances presented in the film reflect a certain post-war social unrest. However, the profligacy is delivered in a more personal level as how the characters have been developed in the story.
The live musical score headed by Cynthia Alexander has rendered well with its wide, dynamic range contributing to the rich and warm instrumentation of this silent film.
‘Asphalt’ is quite simplistic, melodramatic and not terribly original. Yet through the director�s silent storytelling skills and the subtlety of his choice of angles and cuts, the story makes a touching and meaningful classic film. Amidst a bit of dragging scenes as the audience nowadays is generally more used and attuned to the present-day type of presentation and storytelling, the classic feel this film exudes counters that certain drag. Overall, ‘Asphalt’ is a fine example of the characteristics and virtues of late German silent cinema. Belonging to the genre of street movies, it is a fine example of an early film noir set in stunning locations all filmed with characteristically elaborate detail, spectacle and scores of extras.