Varieté (Cert PG)
1 Disc Blu-ray/1 Disc DVD Dual Format (Distributor: Eureka) Running Time: 95 minutes approx.
There is a very good reason why many German films rank highly in critics and fans “Best Ever” lists concerning Silent cinema – their innovation. It might be a small thing or a one off shot but you can bet it was replicated ad infinitum having appeared in a German film first.
E. A. Dupont’s 1925 adaptation of Felix Hollaender’s novel Der Eid des Stephan Huller is a case in point, thanks to a key plot device of the central character being professional acrobats. The film actually begins in prison where inmate No 28, Huller (Emil Jannings) is called before the prosecutor for a review of his sentence after ten years at the behest of the Huller’s wife.
Having remained silent about his crime for the entire duration of his incarceration, Huller is encouraged to unburden himself, taking us back to Hamburg a decade earlier, where Huller ran a seedy dance show at the fairgrounds with his wife (Maly Delschaft) and their baby son. One night a sailor friend brings an orphaned émigré Berta-Marie (Lya De Putti) to Huller, and he takes her in and hires her as a dancer.
But Huller wants to return his former life as trapeze artist while his wife refuses, so Huller leaves with seductress Berta-Marie and head to Berlin where their trapeze act is a hit. Meanwhile, famous Trapeze artist Artinelli (Warwick Ward) is in Berlin following the death of his brother and partner when his agent spots Huller and Berta-Marie’s act. They form a new act as a trio but Artinelli falls for Berta-Marie and the feeling is mutual.
Part of the hook of this film is that we are invested in discovering what exactly Huller did to warrant such a lengthy jail sentence – we can guess it was murder or at the most attempted murder but against whom and how? Our natural reaction is to assume that it occurs during the trapeze act and Muller is able to hide behind the suggestion of an accident and Dupont is certainly aware of this.
I won’t go any further and spoil it for you and I won’t even hint if these assumptions are correct or not but credit to Dupont and writer Hollaender for weaving such a tight web of intrigue. It is not a stretch to say that misconception is a primary theme of this tale, as there is a lot more to the main characters than meets the eye.
Huller is initially only shown from behind so it is not until the flashback we see him in full, a burly, grimacing man with shifty eyes. Yet he is in fact happily married and dotes on his infant son – his only fault being his yearning for the glory days on the trapeze and tiring of fraudulently presenting old hags as beauty queens for his dance act. Berta-Marie is therefore an aesthetic improvement which overlaps into their personal lives.
Each time he sees Berta-Marie Huller is reminded of how his wife was pre-motherhood yet he rebukes the younger woman’s advances until he can no longer take it and the wife’s refusal to revive the trapeze act is the last straw. In Berlin, the now successful couple are enjoying themselves yet we see Huller is at the beck and call of Berta-Marie, a far cry from the timorous girl he took in a few months earlier.
So, it is not karma then when Artinelli swoops in and essentially steals Berta-Marie from under Huller’s nose? He isn’t shy about it, giving her a ring after their first sell out show right in front of Huller, who merely accepts this as a goodwill gesture. Like Huller, Artineli is first seen differently, as a sympathetic figure having just lost his brother and his general appearance and demeanour is that of a modest gentlemen.
Perhaps daring for the time, the first serious encounter alone between the devious Artinelli and Berta-Marie is presented as a possible rape; the aftermath however shows the couple fully immersed in an affair so either this is another misconception or Berta-Marie likes it rough. Huller eventually finds out in a very unusual way, precipitating a showdown but whom will Huller confront first and when?
Again, this ambiguity and teasing of the outcome lifts what is a pedestrian love triangle melodrama above the low threshold of inherent sappiness, made even more engaging and captivating by the tense and febrile presentation. Most of the credit has to fall with cameraman extraordinaire Karl Freund, veteran of many classic German silent films from likes of Fritz Lang and F.W Murnau.
His magic is evident in visually innovative moments that have since become part of the cameraman’s lexicon. Deceptively simple looking shots such as a reflection in a compact mirror are frequent but the real genius comes in the groundbreaking POV shots from the trapeze, capturing every dizzying pendulum swing from above the audience’s heads, taking us right in the moment.
Elsewhere Emil Jannings delivers another powerhouse performance as he takes Huller on this remarkable journey, relaying the changes in his persona with subtle nuance compared to his over dramatic co-stars. The crowning moment is the final showdown in which Jannings maintains a demonically furious glare for a prolonged period of time, a terrifying vision that practically burns a hole through the screen.
A quick word about this new release from Eureka’s Masters Of Cinema series: this film is accompanied by three new musical scores – Stephen Horne’s is a traditional silent cinema solo piano piece; Johannes Contag is a stirring orchestral score; and The Tiger Lilies, which contains vocals and more modern arrangements, is an acquired taste to say the least.
If Varieté can boast anything beyond being another vital example of German silent cinema, it is that even a mighty oak can grow from the most normal of acorns. Don’t be deterred by the mundane story, the dense drama and stunning visual treatment elevates this to classic status.
New 2015 high-definition digital restoration by the FWMS
Three Musical Scores by Stephen Horne, The Tiger Lilies and Johannes Contag
PCM audio on the Blu-ray
Optional English subtitles for the German intertitles
The complete American version of the film
Booklet featuring new writing on the film and archival images
Rating – ****
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