Film review by Jason Day of the silent film Variete/Variety starring Emil Jannings and Lya De Putti. Directed by E.A. Dupont.
In this heavily edited US version of a much longer German tale, a circus trapeze artist (Emil Jannings) and his wife (Lya De Putti) are hired by a famous music hall high-wire star (Warwick Ward) to fill-in for his absent colleagues. But Ward has designs on the wife leading to a love triangle that will have tragic consequences.
Review, by Jason Day
Technically speaking, there has never been a truly silent cinema. Almost from the very beginning, some form of musical accompaniment has always complemented the images on screen, before technology caught up in 1927 and cleverly grafted recorded sound onto film stock.
Interesting then that the showing of this much truncated cut of Dupont’s hit German film, was screened at Rotherhithe’s Sands Films studios completely sans musique. A truly unique (but hopefully one-off!) experience, with the sound effects provided by the audience – shifting in their seats and tummies a-rumbling. The academic screening the film informed us he had heard the music, took an instant dislike to it and turned the film on mute.
One can never forgive the credited and (allegedly) poor composer Rapee for his failures!
Also known as Jealousy, this Berlin-set drama started a trilogy of romantic dramas set in famous cities by German writer/director Dupont the others being Moulin Rouge (1928) set in Paris and Piccadilly (1929) set in London.
Where those dramas extolled the virtues and vices of their home cities so does Variety. The opening sets the scene as strongmen are paraded for the audiences delectation, the MC wiggling his moustache in time as one muscular fellow flexes his biceps. Dupont and the innovative cameraman Freund place ‘us’ in the cart of a Ferris wheel so we get a patron’s eye view of the throng below. Later, at the Wintergarten Theatre, the leering eyes of the audience might be obscured by their binoculars but the reflections of the bare breasted dancer and tightly clothed trapeze artists in the glass are none the less cleverly captured for us to see.
Freund, who would later go on to pioneer TV photography techniques, was a genius behind the camera. Not only when creating clean, crisp images in the most famous of expressionist films in Germany (The Last Laugh, 1924) and America (Dracula, 1931) but also for the arresting shots he created or collaborated on. Here, we have the grimly geometric prison exercise yard, then a never ending corridor toward the prison warden. Boss Huller drinks heartily and the glass covers his face. Several arms rise in the air during a drunken table top dance, hands giving wild applause.
Dupont’s witty visual style is evident throughout. He shows one of the stage performers, a man who balances a ball on his nose and cuts to a sea-lion performing the same act. Animals can ape their human peers, showing why Ward looks snootily down on the bargain basement acts that he follows.
The great, mighty German star Jannings weighs in as a hefty and unlikely acrobat. It was once said that Jannings, one of the most expressive and sophisticated of silent movie actors, could act with just his back and he spends a fair proportion of screen time with his back facing the camera. At the beginning, in prison, it faces us ominously, with his prisoner number branded in a huge font on his shirt. You can see his emotions ticking away as he walks and the in the manner with which he hunches his shoulders.
Tragic De Putti, who died virtually unknown in the early 1930’s, was one of the more sultry vamps of 1920’s cinema and whose naughty looks are a delight in this role.
The circus must have been in vogue in the 1920’s given the glut of well-known movies that survive from the era, apart from Chaplin’s own The Circus (1928) there was He Who Gets Slapped (1924), Sally of the Sawdust (1925), The Magic Flame (1927), The Unknown (also 1927), Murnau’s now sadly lost Four Devils (1928)…I could go on!
Cast & Credits
Director: E.A. Dupont. UFA/Paramount
Producer: Erich Pommer.
Writer: E.A. Dupont.
Camera: Karl Freund, Carl Hoffmann.
Music: Erno Rapee.
Sets: Alfred Junge, Oscar Friedrich Werndorff.
Emil Jannings, Lya De Putti, Warwick Ward.