Director: G.W. Pabst. Sofar Film
Producers: Romain Pines, Michael Salkind. Writer: Willy Haas. Camera: Robert Lach, Curt Oertel, Guido Seeber. Sets: Otto Erdmann, Hans Sohnle.
Werner Krauss, Asta Nielsen, Greta Garbo, Einar Hanson, Valeska Gert, Jaro Furth, Agnes Esterhazy, Loni Nest, Egon Stirner.
Set in Vienna during the immediate aftermath of WWI and with the country suffering the effects of hyperinflation, this drama looks at the interactions between several citizens, including avaricious butcher Krauss, poor girl Nielsen and middle-class Garbo, who contemplates prostitution when her father Furth loses the family life-savings on a dodgy share tip.
Based on the novel by Hugo Bettauer, this film is now chiefly memorable for being Garbo’s second full length motion picture and her final film in Europe before Hollywood superstardom and immortality.
It is difficult to see, at least in the truncated American reissue of 1935, which hacks off almost the entire sub-plot of the film involving Nielsen, exactly what else makes the film worth watching. MGM bosses reasoned home audiences would be intrigued to see what their idol looked like 10 years previous so rushed this out in the same year she played Anna Karenina.
This reviewer had the dubious ‘pleasure’ of seeing only the much shorter version that, at least until recently, was still shown in America as director Pabst’s final cut of the production. But for patient audiences, even this abridged ad absurdum film merits attention.
Firstly, Pabst is excellently served by a dream silent era cast. Krauss (the title role in the influential The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) revels in the type of viciously uncaring, dominating male that he could be found inhabiting at this time. In the longer version, he demands a pound of flesh from Garbo for every pound of meat he gives her. In what we see here, his moustache stroking and leering glances are expressed with lascivious glee.
Suspension of disbelief is stretched to the limit in casting Nielsen (then 44) as a middle-aged couple’s daughter, but here she exudes sympathy and it is easy to see, even in her brief moments, why she was hailed as the greatest tragedienne since Sarah Bernhardt. Her screen career was all but over and this is one of the last movies she appeared in, but her work prior to this had even included playing Hamlet.
Gert amuses in a small role as a saucy, shrew faced sales girl who caresses her face with the furt coat she will sell Garbo.
But it’s all eyes on the greater Greta. Aged 19, she is captured in adoring close-up by Seeber and elicits a devestating, soulful intensity, the sort of world-weariness that would mark out her future American performances. Her converyance of angst and desperation is astonishing, for any actress of this period let alone a relative newcomer and is difficult to find comparison – Lillian Gish is similar, but there is less hysteria here. Garbo needs only the slightest expression to show an ocean’s depth of feeling.
The plot sadly unravels and there are silly moments that creep in. Garbo becomes a cabaret girl, but her dancing makes her the least sexy jazz age flapper. Hanson appears as an American soldier to sweep her off her feet in a happy ending that, after Pabst’s grim ‘New Objectivity’ realism, concludes the film on a saccharine note.
Pabst would go on to make more (and better) films, such as his famous collaborations with Louise Brooke Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, but he was finding his feet here. This is a mid-period Expressionist film, but his eye for dank and grimy design is notable more for its subtlety, neatly underlining the difference between the rich and poor and the financial craziness befalling this city.
Further plaudits should go to the inventive camera team, who make clever use of a mobile camera, roaming along the queue waiting for the butcher to open like an interrogating spotlight.