Sunday, 23 July 2017


Between 1946 and 1964, the great iconoclastic Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel (1900 – 1983) found himself, like many of his contemporaries during the Spanish Civil War, living and working in Mexico, where he was able to resume his directorial career and make at least twenty films in a variety of genres while working to tight schedules and with extremely low budgets for producer Óscar Dancigers -- a Russian émigré, blacklisted by Hollywood for his Communist sympathies. He was to become a citizen of the country in 1949.
 This period of activity had been
 the most productive of Buñuel’s life thus far as a film-maker, following a fallow fifteen years in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War (when he had worked on film propaganda for the defeated Republican Government), which was pent languishing unproductively on the pay-role of MGM studios in Hollywood, and, later, working for the Museum of Modern Art in New York as an editor who at one point was asked to produce (among other assignments) a truncated version of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. The Mexican film industry allowed Buñuel to develop the economical, deceptively-simple-but-subversive poetic realist style that was to help shape and define the approach he utilised with the later masterpieces he made in Spain and France, when he would be completely free of the genre constraints that ultimately make many of the films from this period appear a little rough and uneven. However, in the early-1950s Buñuel was also able to cultivate the beginnings of a sporadic international career by participating in a small number of co-productions, beginning in 1952 with an adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, which he made for American producer George Pepper. This saw the director working in colour for the first time, as he attempted to mould his Spanish-Mexican hybrid sensibility to a more commercial form of international genre film-making. The experiment was evidently considered enough of a success to thereafter nudge Buñuel into accepting a small number of other foreign co-production deals in the second part of the decade, starting with Cela s'appelle l'aurore in 1956, which inaugurated what critic Raymond Durgnat has called Buñuel's "revolutionary triptych": a trio of films that examine how morality operates under conditions of revolutionary rebellion against a brutal dictatorship. This Franco-Italian co-production opened the way for several more team-ups with French producers, starting with the rarely seen film discussed below, which is now released on Blu-ray in the UK (in a dual-format edition) by Eureka Entertainment as part of its august Masters of Cinema line.  

 La Mort en ce jardin (Death in the Garden) was adapted from a now-forgotten novel by Belgian writer José-André Lacour, but its main inspiration was almost certainly the classic 1953 Henri-Georges Clouzot suspense movie The Wages of Fear, with which it shares one of its main French stars, Charles Vanel (also to be seen in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief), who plays very similar roles in both films, which also share key thematic concerns as they both take place in Latin American countries whose natural resources are being exploited by American corporations. This being Buñuel, there’s also a heavily emphasised anti-clerical element too, as the corrupt fascistic military regime in the film, which benefits from U.S. largess at the expensive of the indigenous workers, also gets ideological  support from the compliant doctrine of non-violence being preached by the Catholic missionaries simultaneously flooding the region. But whilst Clouzot’s Anti-American message became the backdrop to a taut suspense thriller, Buñuel’s film is riffing on even more generic survival-adventure fare that has a mismatched, antagonistic, rag-tag band of fugitives forced to flee into the hostile South American jungle after a violent revolutionary uprising at a mining outpost is put down by Government forces.  

In the very few lines Buñuel devotes to the film in his memoir, he regrets not being able to get a better handle on the script -- much of which was being written on the day of shooting, with Buñuel getting up at two in the morning and handing the scenes he’d been working on that night to his French collaborator, Gabriel Arout, at dawn, who would then check Buñuel’s French for mistakes before filming took place later on in the day. The novelist Raymond Queneau turned up at one point to lend some extra support for a few weeks, and Buñuel wryly notes how the writer (whose 1959 novel Zazie dans le metro was later filmed by Louis Malle) always displayed such good humour and ‘infinite tact’ by never saying outright that a script idea was bad, but merely delicately suggesting ‘alterations’ instead. Despite all this, according to Buñuel: “the script remained impossible.” 
Perhaps partly because of this dismissive tone and the fact of the film’s relative rarity (until this colourful, crystal clear HD print turned up for the Blu-ray release), Death in the Garden has never been treated as anything much more than a minor work in the Buñuel filmography. This might well now be changing as it transpires that the director was perhaps being rather too harsh in his judgement of a work which frequently finds subtly interesting ways to adapt the adventure film mode to traditional Buñuelian concerns. It turns out that seeing Buñuel successfully working what is, for much of the picture, a commercial ‘action’ genre piece, and then slowly warping its conventions in the second half with absurdist ideas drawn from his familiar arsenal of tropes, actually puts rather a refreshing new spin on many of them. 

The first half of the movie is devoted to establishing a core group of disparate ne’er-do-well characters whose priorities are soon shown to put them completely at odds, but who are going nevertheless to be forced to rely on each-other for survival later on. If there is one single unambiguous take-home message coming from Buñuel with this film, it is that simple, prescriptive moral formulations are inadequate for dealing with the ever-shifting messiness of human relationships, especially when those relationships are placed against  a backdrop of social chaos created by systems of political oppression that bring with them unpredictable consequences. Buñuel had a cast of fairly well-known French actors at his disposal for this picture; and a lush, bright, ‘50s Technicolor palette is provided by Mexican cinematographer Jorge Stahl Jr. to lend proceedings in a picturesque Latin American village and the teeming jungle surrounding it an epic quality which, when combined with Buñuel’s deceptively workman-like (but effective) direction, creates an impression during the opening forty-five minutes of a film that might easily pass for a fairly decently mounted mainstream action feature.

The first scene opens on a rocky Mexican quarry in a remote valley near a stream, where sun-beaten prospectors are shown urgently shifting for diamonds. One of them is Charles Vanel, who plays an elderly French fortune hunter called Castin: modestly hoping to earn just enough from staking his claim to enable him to one day return to his homeland and open a restaurant in Marseilles. For Castin -- one gets the impression -- the entire journey has been something of a romantic adventure; the extent of his naiveté is demonstrated when it becomes apparent that he has also fallen in love with, and expects to take back home with him to marry, the hard-nosed blonde prostitute who’s currently running the town brothel which caters to many of the prospectors who pass through the region from all over the world, looking to make their fortune in the diamond fields. Her name is Djin, and she is played by Simone Signoret … the distinctive German-born actress who is best known for her role as Joe Lampton’s older lover Alice Aisgill in Room At The Top, Jack Clayton’s 1959 adaptation of John Braine’s novel of the same name. Meanwhile, for Horror fans, she is synonymous with the ice-blooded conspirator and killer she so effectively rendered for Henri-Georges Clouzot’s twist-laden thriller of 1955, Les diaboliques. Djin -- defiant, ballsy and devious -- definitely does not come across as the type to be content with marriage to an aging sentimentalist followed by a settled existence running a busy restaurant. She has her own ‘business arrangement’ going with a local boat-owner called Chenko (Tito Junco – who also appears in Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel) who ferries in fresh blood from Brazil to keep her clientele entertained; a military unit seconded at the outpost, and headed by a Captain Ferrero (Jorge Martínez de Hoyos), turns a blind eye to the couple’s activities for a cut of their profits. “There is nothing more important than making money” is a phrase that trips easily from Chenko’s tongue, and it’s a motto Djin herself seems fully to endorse: fairly early on in the first act, an adventurer called Shark (Georges Marchal – the quintessential leading man of ‘50s French cinema) turns up in the village and finds out just how far Djin can be trusted when money is entered into the equation. 

Shark ambles into town in the middle of a minor revolt prompted by a Government proclamation rescinding all independent prospectors’ claims and taking the diamond fields into public ownership. Looking for a place to stay for the night he accidently ends up in Djin’s bed, who, when she finds him there, decides she quite likes the look of him and makes love with him. Unfortunately, she also decides she likes the look of the money belt he keeps strapped to his chest … She reports him to the corrupt Captain Ferrero, who comes with a military attachment to take him into custody on fabricated charges of bank robbery. Djin’s partner Chenko is rustled up as a ‘witness’ and Shark ends up in a police cell while Djin and Chenko receive their cut of the money stolen from him. Shark manages to escape just as a full-scale revolt kicks off after the military execute by firing squad an injured, unconscious man who’d been accused of taking part in earlier protests: a scene which anticipates a similar instance of absurdist cruelty perpetrated by corrupt officialdom in Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war thriller Paths of Glory.

Shark uses the ensuing bloodshed as cover for his escape; a scene in which he finds some crates full of dynamite and ammunition in the cellar under the police cells leads to one of the few instances of bravura action spectacle in Buñuel’s cinema, when Shark sets a gasoline trail alight that leads to the cellar stash and there’s a massive explosion destroying the entire police headquarters! Army reinforcements arrive and the revolt is used as an excuse to target and remove foreign prospectors who’d previously worked harmoniously alongside locals seeking their fortune from mining the local diamonds. Castin – now with a head wound sustained during the fighting -- is falsely accused of being one of the ringleaders of the revolt. He and a recently arrived missionary friend called Lizzardi (Michel Piccoli) try and hide out at Djin’s, but are forced to flee with Castin’s deaf-mute daughter Maria (Michèle Girardon) when a reward of 5000 pesos is put on his head and the locals are told that random executions of  Castin’s co-workers will take place if he doesn’t give himself up. Castin, Lizzardi, Maria and Djin set off undercover of night to flee downriver in Chenko’s boat, but it is hijacked by Shark, who is also trying to escape to Brazil and has unfinished business with a number of his fellow escaping renegades.

This dramatic, tense situation is the lead-in to the jungle survival-adventure aspect of the narrative which characterises the second half of the film, when the group is forced to abandon the river and flee into the ‘green inferno’ after a military patrol boat catches up with them. But it also serves as the context that underscores a tense and dynamically evolving set of relationships that we see continue to develop between the conflict-ridden characters as their struggles become more desperate and subject to chance and hardship. By this stage most of the principle characters have previously met, if sometimes only briefly, or they’ve become interconnected in some way during the build-up to the protests and riots percolating in response to the Government’s land-grab and the subsequent military clamp-down: Shark has made love with and also been betrayed by the prostitute Castin ludicrously expects one day to marry (and naively believes he can build a conventional bourgeois family for his daughter with)  … but Shark has also earlier been shown being extremely mean to Maria in the local tavern frequented by the rebellious prospectors, and he brutally assaulted Castin when the father tried to intervene on behalf of his daughter. Djin has herself indicated that she might be willing to marry Castin, but only because she has found out he is rich and, him being also elderly, she surmises that he probably doesn’t have too much longer to live so wouldn’t be a bind on her freedom for long. Maria’s attraction to Shark, despite his appallingly rough treatment of her, becomes clear soon after he is taken into custody, during a moment when she comforts him after he is led through the congregation of a church service being held by Lizzardi, and is beaten to his knees by his captors as the prayers commence. Such a tangled web of conflicting (and conflicted) passions is bound to lead to dramatic tensions, but it also purposely leaves the viewer with no clear-cut hero to root for, as all the characters start out compromised by their very great flaws, which are  displayed in their relationships with each-other: Shark is a violent misogynist; Chenko an amoral opportunist; Djin is selfish and superficial, and Castin a naive fantasist who is easily led. Only Maria comes across initially as an innocent abroad -- but her personality and character will develop in another direction as circumstances change during the coming battle to survive.

A normal trajectory at this point, for a commercial action-adventure feature operating in such an area of genre as this, would involve the gradual coming together of the conflict-prone group as its members realise that they must do so in order to stand any chance of surviving the brutal, unforgiving indignities of nature untamed. Instead, Buñuel’s approach is rather different -- and it results in an infinitely more cynical philosophy than the ‘progress’ narrative that’s usually spun in similar tales of survival, which invariably involve mutual sacrifice re-formulated in terms that envisage it as a sort of ‘penance’ that leads to a higher form of human morality being attained that is founded on cooperation, with those who cannot adapt inevitably falling by the wayside. In Death in the Garden, Buñuel seems more interested in exploring the competing moral frameworks of each of his main protagonists, and seeing how various aspects of them seen in operation during the first part of the film, hinder or help the struggle to exist when conditions unmoored by societal conventions are encountered. The interrogation of morality in Buñuel films inevitably involves an examination of religion at some point -- particularly its Catholic variety; the missionary character of Father Lizzardi, played by Michel Piccoli, becomes the vehicle by which the director approaches these issues for this particular film. Piccoli, of course, was to become one of the most frequent performers in Buñuel’s filmography, as well as a great friend to the director; this was their first collaboration -- and it sees him appearing youthful and white-suited (he bears something of a striking resemblance in this film to Christopher Lee), and cutting an extremely ambiguous figure as a recently arrives Catholic missionary who seems to vacillate between a sincere intent to ‘do the right thing’ and serving his own (and his mission’s) best interests. When the prospectors who face ruin rebel and plot to occupy in protest the diamond fields which the Government is taking over, it is Father Lizzardi who advises them against it, pointing out that rebellion “always results in merciless oppression”. He counsels the angry men that “defying authority will get you nowhere. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword!” Lizzardi might like to persuade himself that he’s trying to save lives here: army reinforcements are coming, and the rebellion will indeed be put down harshly when it spontaneously irrupts in response to an act of state cruelty. Yet Lizzardi seems acutely unaware that he is actively participating in the exploitation of the locals at the hands of corrupt authoritarians and foreign corporations by inculcating in them such a passive acceptance of the status quo. When Shark mockingly raises this point with him, Lizzardi indignantly insists that “we are not responsible for the overseers!” to which Shark replies that nevertheless: “they seem to follow you wherever you go. They must really like you guys!” Also, the missionaries specifically benefit from these kinds of unofficial partnership: it doesn’t occur to Lizzardi to question why it is that he, and all the other missionaries who come to bring the word of God to the native population of the region, have been gifted expensive watches, paid for by an oil refinery company active in the area. 

Perhaps the film’s best illustration of the culpability of the type of religion practiced by the likes of Father Lizzardi comes soon after Shark is taken into custody by Captain Ferrero’s forces as a result of Djin reporting him to them. Lizzardi is allowed to hold mass in a building that also houses rooms and offices being used as interrogation centres by Ferrero and his men; assisted by Castin, he is holding one such service when Shark is marched through the congregation on his way to the rooms at the back of the building, where he will be subjected to interrogation on false charges of bank robbery. Not only are Lizzardi and Castin so absorbed in the solemn rituals of their faith that they completely fail to acknowledge the injustice that is being carried out in their very midst, but they unwittingly become the cause of an act of savagery being perpetrated upon Shark, after the soldiers escorting the prisoner hear the prayer bell being rung and kick him to his knees in order to force him to ‘pay his respects’. When the corrupt military authorities later try to pin the blame for the prospectors’ rebellion on Lizzardi’s own friend Castin because he is a foreigner, Lizzardi doesn’t hesitate to tell Castin that he should turn himself in in order to end the bloodshed! In each instance and in every respect Lizzardi’s moral advice, apparently delivered with only the best intentions, aides and enforces fascist oppression. 

The second half of the film plays to very different rhythms, and feels more languidly paced, than the mixture of character study with action and taut suspense that defines the first part. It transforms into something that will feel that much more recognisable to viewers familiar with Buñuel’s later works, such as Belle De Jour or That Obscure Object of Desire. In that respect this can be seen as a fascinating transitional work which begins to operate on the poetic, absurdist levels of Buñuel’s most celebrated surrealist fables once the main characters leave the cultural institutions of society behind. The military unit initially pursuing the fugitives through the jungle decides to give up the chase on the assumption that “the jungle will eat them alive. They will never get out,” and thereafter we never see or hear from the army again, and that side of the plot disappears. The film instead becomes a deep study of a small group of people who have nothing but themselves and each-other to fall back on once they’re cast into this primordial natural state which, through sound design and stylisation Buñuel is able to imbue with strikingly hallucinogenic qualities. There is no musical score whatsoever throughout any of this part of the picture – only a rising, constant screeching crescendo of cicadas, against a backdrop of howling and crying from distant unidentifiable animals that forever remain unseen. Hearing this cacophony of noise, but not being able to see any signs of life amid the jungle foliage other than the remaining survivors themselves, creates a sense of unease which Buñuel continually finds ways to augment and amplify by other methods; the disorientation the characters experience is exemplified in imagery which feels like it originates in areas of the mind harnessed by dream consciousness: Maria with her hair so elaborately tangled up in jungle vines that she cannot move; a sudden smash-cut to the teeming traffic around the Arc de Triomphe, which turns out to be a delirious Castin gazing at a photograph of the architectural landmark, and represents him imagining being back home – a juxtaposition of images that suggests the artificial nature of the societal structures which lend form to our constructed sense of identity; and the incomprehensible gestalt shift which occurs when the exhausted, starving fugitives stumble upon the smouldering embers of a recently vacated camp fire and are shocked, scared and excited by the possibility of there being other people in the area … only to finally realise that they have been walking, half-delirious, in a circle all day and that this is the same camp they made themselves earlier on. Perhaps the most vivid image that we see of this hallucinogenic nature takes the film into a zone that at one point makes it seem a plausible, if unlikely, partner to Ruggero Deodato’s  Cannibal Holocaust: Lizzardi hacking at a live snake with a machete … Desperate for food, the group struggle to light a fire -- with Lizzardi even contemplating using pages from his Bible to kindle the flames -- but by the time they manage to get one going the half-gutted creature (which still seems – horribly -- to be somehow moving about) has been completely swarmed by an army of angry red ants!

The idea this section of the film posits is not that these characters are changed by the experience of having to survive without food in this relentlessly hostile, heat-suffused environment of swamps and impassable jungle undergrowth, but that their pre-existing dispositions have simply
been re-contextualised in ways that alter our moral assessment of them. Shark’s rebelliousness, his bullishness and tendency towards violence make him a natural leader, while Lizzardi’s willingness to submit to authority allows him to work very well alongside Shark when others have reached the stage of giving up on life. Castin, meanwhile -- now delirious from a head wound sustained during the rebellion -- relies more and more on the religious sensibility (cultivated, ironically enough of course, during his friendship with Lizzardi) to make sense of the apparently hopeless position he and his daughter now find themselves in. But this results in him resorting to superstitious ideas about how God has condemned them and plans to judge them. Djin, the seemingly strong, money-minded brothel madam, rejects the useless Castin and becomes wholly dependent on Shark for survival.
The big Buñuelian ‘twist’ comes right at the end – when Shark discovers a crashed airliner full of luxury food, clothing and consumer items in the middle of the jungle (cue Castin predictably intoning how “God has saved us through a miracle” and Shark reminding them all that “fifty people had to die in order to save us!”). The fugitives, in a reversal of the situation encountered in The Exterminating Angel (where the rich dinner party guests inhabiting an expensive villa become like island survivors who cannot leave their isolated environment), start dressing in expensive designer clothes they’ve recovered from the crash wreckage, and pretty much set up a mini bourgeois enclave in the middle of a South American jungle clearing! This is a deliberate deus ex machina solution, cynically deployed by Buñuel with the intention of showing how, ultimately, these people cannot overcome the flaws in their own natures, and that it is such flaws which will ultimately condemn them, as their effects become amplified by the empty values of a privileged consumer lifestyle transferred to an uncivilised region and fabricated from the accumulated detritus of a fatal catastrophe. 

Maria, previously the innocent of the fleeing party, is introduced to a world she had no prior experience of, and becomes enamoured with the glittering contents of a jewellery box … which brings her into conflict with Lizzardi, who believes these possessions should remain untouched out of respect for their former owners. Djin, clad incongruously, amid the wild vegetation of the jungle, in a luxuriant ball gown, quickly comes to exemplify the passive values instilled by bourgeois femininity: where once she laughed at the thought of being ‘kept’ by Castin, after learning of his plan to take her to France in order to one day marry her, she ends up softly intoning to the group’s ‘saviour’ Shark, how she has come to realise that “a woman is nothing without a man!” A man such as Castin, on the other hand, previously kindly and gentle but now in the thrall of a religious mania and superstitions that are informed by Old Testament ideas of divine punishment and retribution, is the most dangerous kind of man of all: not all of the group will make it to the end of the film thanks to him. The final irony is that the two people, Shark and Maria, who do get the chance to flee by raft across the border to Brazil in the movie’s final moments, were the first two members of the party to come into conflict: where once Maria’s father, Castin, tried but failed to defend her from the advances of the brutalist adventurer, now it is that rough-minded drifter on whom she must depend, and who becomes a father figure of sorts as they face an uncertain future together. 

This release from Eureka Entertainment constitutes the film’s first time on Blu-ray, and the vivid digital transfer serves the wonderful brightness of the colour film palette very well. The disc has over ninety minutes of interview material as its extra features, which see critic Tony Rayns delivering an excellent overview of the film’s themes and its connections to Buñuel’s filmography; film scholar Victor Fuentes examining in detail the director’s Mexican period; and actor Michel Piccoli talking about his lengthy career, and his relationship with Buñuel. Plus there is a 24-page booklet featuring an essay by Philip Kemp. Death in the Garden is a solid addition to Buñuel’s cinema to be made available on home viewing formats. Hopefully, the fruitful Mexican period will get more exposure on Blu-ray soon.      


Thursday, 6 July 2017

VARIETE (1925)

The silent German film classic Varieté is a torrid, melodramatic tale of family betrayal, infidelity, sexual obsession and moral intrigue that was released to great acclaim and success in 1925. It takes place against a big city backdrop of ribald and often Rabelaisian film sounds and sights encompassing the worlds of carnival, vaudeville, theatrical entertainment and stage performance - mostly set in the teeming metropolis that was modern Berlin of the 1920s, at the height of the Weimar Republic. The film is one of the high-points of the German post-expressionist silent cinema to emerge from this period during the Republic’s all-too-brief heyday, with erotically charged subject matter that throws a symbolic spotlight on the unprecedented social and sexual politics of a politically fragile but culturally vital post-World War 1 era, when the arts reached a creative peak in the midst of political and economic turmoil that would eventually see a nascent democracy unravel completely and totalitarian forces taking over. This was a period when the arts had their roots planted firmly -- in the phrase of the anti-fascist writer Arnold Zweig -- “in the dual sensibility of the vast destructiveness of war and the powerful creativity of revolution.” German society was undergoing a series of radical social and political changes in the aftermath of its defeat in the Great War, with the old, militaristic Wilhelmine order being forced to give way to revolutionary enthusiasms unleashed by a fledgling democracy that had emerged amid the unruly forces of a modernity governed by rapid industrialisation. The era nurtured a freeing of the creative spirit, that existed simultaneously with a loosening of attitudes to censorship leading to great innovations in music, theatre, art, photography, design and film during the 1920s, all of which seemed to revel in breaking with the stolid rules of the past. However, the artistic volatility of the period was also defined by great social conflict, primarily because the censorious, morally conservative and highly militaristic proclivities of the provincial aristocracy had never really been anything like fully vanquished by the revolution of 1918-19. Conservative forces would continue to regard the flowering of modernist innovation in the arts as a form of ‘cultural Bolshevism’ promoted by cosmopolitan elites in Berlin. The travails created by hyperinflation and, in the early 1930s, mass unemployment were to add more and more fuel to an already bitter, violently polarised society full of stark ideological divergences, social contradictions, and the opposing desire for both unlimited freedom and total mastery and control … A society, in other words, constantly at war with its own increasingly bifurcated sense of itself. 

Guided by the innovative directorial hand of Ewald André Dupont, and with exquisite cinematography by Karl Freund, the cinematic masterpiece Varieté (now available in the UK in glorious HD thanks to its recent Blu-ray release by Eureka Entertainment for the Masters of Cinema series) provides us with an ideal point of reference for understanding some of the forces at play in German society during this tumultuous time. For one thing, the movie gives us an insight into the development of German cinema, acting as a great demonstration piece that draws together the startling innovations in photography and camera movement pioneered by French filmmakers several years previously, but here utilised for the purposes of breath-baiting audience spectacle. Dupont took ‘the unfastened camera’ of Murnau’s The Last Laugh and created a dizzying spectacle which aimed to capture the vertiginous sensations of the trapeze, inter-cutting the realism and subjectivity of this imagery with expressionistic, sometimes almost surrealistic flights of fancy. Meanwhile, much of the vivid imagery and thematic undercurrents which lend this popular melodrama its particular fervent flavour seem to draw on contemporary social fears that relate to the changing role of women in German industrial society before and after the Great War. Concerns that the institution of marriage was being undermined after the establishment of the Republic by women going out to work more frequently, and about the provocativeness of a newly empowered form of female sexuality that was becoming more visible in public life, went hand-in-hand with increased awareness of a new social phenomenon: the independent ‘new woman’. All were ills associated with the increasingly modern forms of mechanised industrial consumer society -- which was an issue that particularly occupied German social, political and ethical theorists of the day. Such fears indicate that a crisis of masculinity was taking place in interwar Berlin at this time. For the historically aware modern viewer, this film now stands as an embodiment of many of the contradictions and ambivalences of the period; it is a movie that benefits considerably from the freeing effect produced by the new moral licence that came to the fore in Berlin during a period of lax censorship, and which allowed the film’s frank depiction of sexual longing and erotic obsession. But it also plays on those same fears to intersect with concerns that were being expressed by social conservatives and leftist thinkers alike, who all worried at the time that modern(ist) capitalist society was irrevocably altering or upsetting the balance of the relationship between the sexes. 

Such ideas turn out to describe the subtext to much of Dupont’s film perfectly, but, like his previous picture, The Humble Man and the Chanteuse, it had its origins in a much older piece of pre-war sensationalist fiction. The movie is based on a novel which went by the title The Oath of Stephan Huller, and was written and published in 1912 by the then domestically well-known novelist Felix Hollaender (son of the Composer Friedrich Hollanender), who would later work with Max Reinhardt at the Deutsches Theater. In fact, the novel, and variations on its pulp themes and theatrical setting provided material for a number of movie adaptations. The first screen interpretation appeared in the year of the novel’s publication and was directed by the Danish filmmaker and actor Viggo Larsen -- mainly today associated with his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in several early silents. Reinhard Bruck supplied another retelling in 1921, as did Nicolas Farkas in 1935, although by this point Hollaender’s novel was no longer being credited as a source, so familiar had the love triangle subject matter become to audiences. A year later, British International Pictures released The Three Maxims, directed by a contemporary of Michael Balcon and Alexander Korda by the name of Herbert Wilcox and starring his wife, the actress Anna Neagle, who was to become one of Britain’s most popular wartime attractions as the star of copious lightweight musicals, comedies and costume dramas in the mid-40s. This fluffy, mild-mannered version was based on the Farkas re-telling, and strips away the darker tone that marks Dupont’s classic of ten years before. Finally, German-American director Kurt Neumannd (of the Johnny Weissmüller Tarzan series) produced a circus-themed variant of the story’s love triangle plotline in 1951. However, Dupont’s distillation of the novel’s melodramatic possibilities remains to date the most artistically compelling interpretation of the material, despite the shorter American cut stripping out the first act and removing much of the risqué moral tension of the piece. The director’s virtuoso use of the camera as a tool for conveying vertiginous impressions of the various characters’ subjective disorientations and their tormented mental states captures the intensity of experienced sensation, while standing alongside documentary-like images and scenes that act as a record of contemporary German life; the film’s innovations denote the director’s artful negotiation and management of both expressionist and New Objectivity sensibilities, and their associated techniques.  

Ewald André Dupont was born in the German town of Zeitz on Christmas day, 1891. After coming to prominence as a leading critic and newspaper columnist, he broke into the nascent German film industry as a screenwriter for Stern-Film-GmbH. Two years later, having by then produced at least sixteen scripts for detective serials by directors such as Joe May, he progressed to directing not only his own but also other writers’ murder mystery stories, many of which – such as The White Peacock and Whitechapel (both released in 1920) -- were set in England, often incorporating colourful variety stage performance and music hall settings. A prolific and well-respected leading light of Germany’s silent film industry, E.A. Dupont went on to direct twenty-three movies in just seven years, but it was his twenty-fourth, Varieté, which has secured him his place in cinematic history, if only amongst film scholars and cineastes. Unfortunately, Dupont is one of those early film artists who found it difficult to adapt when the sound era came along. Much of his later work has been overlooked and, consequently, his name has largely been forgotten by the public. Yet Varieté was a huge international smash in 1925, even without the racier images and plot points stripped from the U.S. version (re-titled Vaudeville) in order to make the German original Hays Code compliant (local state censorship boards were prone to removing still more material). Dupont was invited to Hollywood off of the back of the success of the film, but was able to make only one movie there -- for Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures. This was the romantic drama Love Me and the World is Mine, starring Mary Philbin (from The Phantom of the Opera), which went $350,000 over-budget and was not a success. A subsequent move to Britain resulted in several notable, visually extravagant productions made for British International Pictures: Moulin Rouge (1928) and the lavishly expensive Piccadilly (1929), starring Chinese American movie star Anna May Wong. He also helmed Atlantic (1929), an early talkie based on the Titanic disaster and made in two versions for English and German markets respectively, which were shot simultaneously at Elstree Studios with different casts. But Dupont found he was never able to reproduce in the talkies the subtle majesty of his best silent era work, and critical and commercial appreciation largely eluded him from here on in. He found it increasingly difficult to find decent directorial work and ended up flitting from company to company, often spending long stretches without employment. Although he remained active in various fields of the film industry throughout most of his life, when he did direct in later years it was mainly for low grade B-movies or TV series episodes. He died in Los Angeles of cancer in 1956. 

The plot of Varieté can be boiled down to the most basic elements of melodrama: hope, lust, jealousy, revenge and redemption. Ex-trapeze artist Boss Huller runs a seedy carnival near the port of Hamburg, living unhappily on-site in a cramped caravan with his downtrodden drudge of a wife and their infant son. A mysterious, nameless young foreign woman, orphaned aboard the ship she was brought to the country on (which gives her the name Berta-Marie) after her mother died of fever during their long ocean voyage, is practically sold to him and subsequently given a job as a sideshow dancer. Soon she reawakens in Huller the desire and determination to once more take up his old profession -- previously abandoned after a crippling accident -- as a trapeze catcher. Newly inspired, and now under his young charge’s hypnotic sexual spell, Huller leaves his wife and child for this inscrutable, casually provocative muse (who he has by-now trained as his assistant), and moves to Berlin, where the couple perform in a death-defying, open-air trapeze act. They come to the attention of a famous Italian trapeze artist called Artinelli, who has also recently moved to Berlin -- despondent and grief-stricken after the loss of his brother-&-partner during an accident that occurred when the duo were performing in London. Artinelli offers Huller and Berta-Marie a professional contract and they start performing together as a trio at the famous Berlin Wintergarten, soon becoming a huge vaudevillian attraction there. In no time at all they are the toast of Berlin thanks to a spectacular, blindfolded triple-somersault performed without safety net, which fills the famous variety theatre with awed spectators. However, the inevitable happens, and the caddish Artinelli (who has always had one crafty eye on the sultry Berta-Marie), lures the young woman into his bed with promises of greater riches if they dump Huller and set off together for a glittering career in America. Huller finds out, sees red, and murders Artinelli in a raging fit of sexual jealousy. He ends up in prison, from where he relates the entire story to a sympathetic prison Governor in exchange for redemption that’s delivered in the form of a written note of forgiveness from his abandoned wife and child.  

The book-ending prison sequences used to frame the story as a flashback do not reveal the face of Boss Huller until we return to them at the very end of the film, after his story has been told and the hearty, strapping, bull-necked figure of a man with a twinkle in his eye we’ve been watching gradually come apart at the seams is shown to have been made stooped, tired, prematurely aged and psychologically broken as the result of the events depicted. This performance constitutes one of the Swiss-born actor Emil Jannings’ most iconic screen appearances. A popular actor in Weimar cinema after starting out as a stage performer who, like the film’s novelist author, became associated with director Max Reinhardt’s ensemble at the Deutsches Theatre, forming connections with many leading lights of Weimar culture such as photographer Frieda Riess and The Blue Angel screenwriter & polymath Karl Vollmoller, Jannings had already worked with Ernst Lubitsch and had just starred in FW Murnau’s The Last Laugh  -- the first of several collaborations that would go on to produce the silent classics Tartuffe and Faust – when he came to make his appearance in Dupont’s Varieté. Despite his becoming the only German actor to win an Academy Award for best performance, Jannings' reputation went into terminal decline thanks to his willingness to appear in Nazi propaganda films during the ‘30s; but at this point in the mid-1920s, he was still at his peak professionally. The opening prison segment leading into the extended flashback that provides the meat of the story, demonstrates the film’s winning combination of Jannings’ gestural performance and Dupont’s intelligent staging and knack for striking composition, which work together throughout to make Varieté still a moving spectacle even when its innovations in camera movement no longer retain the ability to dazzle as they would have done during the picture’s heyday. Jannings was, famously, for the entirety of this opening segment, required to convey Huller’s crushed dejection while acting with his back to the camera, with the particulars of his haggard, dead-eyed countenance saved up for a ‘reveal’ when we return to his present situation at the end of the movie -- at which point it becomes a window through which we see the damage that Huller’s years of misdeeds have wrought upon his psyche. Upon a re-watch we can also see how Dupont makes use of visual rhymes and synonyms during this opening prologue, to prefigure elements of the plot before they are seen to later unfold and that, for the character of Huller, act as damning, regret-inducing reminders of his past foolishness: a large circular chamber, around which the prisoners are forced to march in single file, anticipates the cut to an image of a Ferris Wheel fairground ride – one of the first images that we see when the film flashes back to Huller’s career as a carnival manager; while the long walk down a shadowy prison corridor towards the Governor’s office that Huller has to take after being summoned there for his assessment pending a review of his case, turns out to be a foreshadowing of the suspenseful climax to the movie and the scene that takes place just after Huller has murdered Artinelli (we see him washing his bloodied hands in a basin shortly after the terrible deed) in which he walks, in a daze, down the long hotel corridor towards the downstairs reception desk – Berta-Marie collapsing in shock behind him -- to ask for the police to be called to the scene of his own crime …  

The first part of the flashback provides an introduction to the younger Boss Huller (Jannings) and his wife (Maly Delschaft) -- and their grim life together running a carnival sideshow attraction that seems to cater mainly to the sordid lusts of various grotesquely rendered Lumpenhund. This part of the film plays as an expressionistic vignette within a photographic realist setting, defined by the faces of Weimar’s poverty-stricken masses -- both its criminal- and working-classes -- as they jostle for command of the limited space in an over-crowded frame. In many ways these images echo the work of the German portrait and documentary photographer August Sander, who, as part of his People of the 20th Century series, was interested in documenting through photographic portraiture in the Weimar era individuals who represented all aspects of German society before and after the First World War, including travelers, circus performers, the unemployed and the sick and disabled. Although his work was produced with socially progressive ideals in mind, August Sander was also a proponent of physiognomy: the belief that outward appearances reveal the inner essences of certain groups or ‘types’ of people – and the film’s depiction of a leering, lustful, objectifying, unruly working-class masculinity crowding into the pitiful ‘beauty contest’ tent that Huller and his wife preside over, seems to offer an extreme example of this doctrine, suggesting a degenerate class that is lacking in any moral grounded-ness, self-discipline or respect for order. 

The Beauty Contest sideshow Boss Huller and his wife run, offers to take the wives of male spectators and turn them into glamourous exemplars of femininity by re-packaging and presenting them back to their fervent husbands for a short while as erotic ‘Living Theatre’ exhibits. A montage of the distinctly unglamorous, worn-down, tired out and clapped-out faces of the wives and women folk, in their dirty, raggedy clothing, gives way to Huller’s sideshow transformation of them -- which allows the cracked, misshapen irregular features of the males packing the audience a short term relief based on a normally unobtainable fantasy version of ‘their’ women, with hair groomed and make-up applied to convey movie star pulchritude, and limbs and torsos scantily swathed in peek-a-boo-fine muslin robes so that they fleetingly become akin to unreachable movie screen goddesses. It’s a strange, disconcertingly frank depiction of the male gaze … so full of impotent, voyeuristic longing, yet also a rough tool of oppression and manipulation of the female form. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the dramatic change in the visibility and in the status of women which had occurred during the war years had resulted in a coarsening of German conceptions of masculinity. In the 19th century, Kaiser Wilhelm II had defined German women's position in society in terms that described its rootedness in the tradition of 'Kirche, Kueche, Kinder' -- or church, kitchen and children. But war and the subsequent November Revolution upended such reactionary ideas, and brought women into the workplace in increasing numbers. Women during this time also began to ‘command the streets’ in the big cities, with fashion and advertising becoming increasingly important in a consumer culture symbolised by the advent of the Department store, which was a great help in making women going out alone unchaperoned a respectable occurrence by providing them with ‘feminised spaces’ that were recognised as ‘safe’. After being given the right to vote in 1919, women accounted for 52% of an electorate which had seen its male numbers vastly depleted by war. 

In many ways, the story of Varieté is a dramatization of the psychological turmoil and paranoia of the German male psyche of the 1920s, conveying its myriad weaknesses rooted in idealised nostalgia, and its misogynistic fear of nearly all aspects of the new femininity that had come to the fore during the post-war era. The film can be read as part of the backlash against women’s emancipation and their new visibility on the streets, which also involves a longing for a return to a pre-war notion of Woman rooted in nurture and the family. This paranoid traditionalism was even more suspicious of exotic foreign types of female who bring new and ‘un-German’ conceptions of femininity into circulation; also in the Weimar era, when urban centers such as Berlin became playgrounds of sexual licence and every conceivable form of sexual experimentation, there was a popular boom in sex counselling clinics and marriage guidance advice manuals, which were published in order to address the sexual problems of the average man and woman in an unprecedentedly frank way during a period when divorce rates were rocketing. 

In the film, it is Boss Huller’s inability to accept his humble circumstances and to appreciate his poor but diligent, plump but devoted wife as she is in the present day that leads to his downfall. Instead, his infatuation with the exotic, demure, almost doll-like Berta-Marie becomes caught up in a nostalgic yearning to recapture the glory of his younger and better days: his desire to recreate a period when he and his wife were partners in a successful trapeze act. Huller’s initially cheerful acquiescence in the mundane routines of a threadbare family life lived out in the couple’s cramped caravette is interrupted by Berta-Marie’s unexpected arrival, and dissatisfaction with Huller’s lot in life is kindled by her exotic appearance, along with the re-emergence of his libido. By training the youthful Berta-Marie as his new trapeze assistant he is replacing his wife with a younger model, but this process also involves the complete rejection of the family: his infant son as well as his faithful wife. A typically melodramatic scene illustrates the torments Huller suffers in order to blank out the past for a fantasy recreation: he strikes out at Berta-Marie for waking the baby when she comes back to the caravette after finishing her act one night, but just as quickly succumbs to her charms seconds later! Huller’s mid-life crisis comes to stand for the general crisis of masculinity being played out throughout Weimar Germany at the time. The film, of course, also itself benefited from modern Weimar’s unusual frankness about the depiction of sex: Huller’s torrid encounters with Berta-Marie were far steamier than anything encountered in American movies at the time, where its scenes of partial nudity would have been completely out of the question (hence the drastic cuts administered to the U.S. version). Yet, this is a movie in which both the male and female protagonists are depicted as victims of larger societal forces over which they have next to no control, or even awareness …

The character of Berta-Marie, her initial depiction and later development under the wing of first Boss Huller and then Artinelli, is at the core of this movie’s complex of ideas about women and their relationships with men in a rapidly industrialising post-war world of ‘Fordism’ dominated by the principles of consumerism. She was played by the Hungarian actress Lya De Putti, a performer noted for her distinctive portrayal of vamp characters in the silent film era, and rather astutely cast in Varieté given her background in vaudeville in her native Hungary and her later career as a ballet dancer who performed at the Berlin Winter Gardens in 1924 -- which is also the famous venue where Huller, Berta-Marie and Artinelli are seen to perform their extraordinary feats in the film. When Berta-Marie first appears -- presented to Huller by the Captain of a cargo ship almost as a nameless pet who is to be taken ownership of -- her otherness and foreignness are highlighted by the exoticness of her scanty robe, which, in its paucity, also reveals the slightly darker complexion of her skin. Her lack of clothing also suggests something innately sexual is to be associated with such foreign forms of otherness. Yet there is also a strangely robotic or mechanical quality to Berta-Marie’s ability to command sexual desire in male spectators. Her large, painted eyes make her look like a blank doll brought to life through sheer force of male sexual fantasy, and the gyrating movements she makes that drive the men wild when she performs her sideshow routine have an automated, unconscious feel to them. A similar idea -- of sexual response being produced automatically under conditions of clockwork or robotic processes of mechanisation -- is conveyed during Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis, when Brigette Helm’s robot Maria performs her extraordinary fetish-dance at the decadent nightclub Yoshiwara. 

Such a characterisation of female sexuality in an industrialised setting has ambivalent and contradictory connotations that suggest countervailing forces of alienation and arousal existing side-by-side in perpetual tension. The contemporary work of feminist Dada artist Hannah Hoch encapsulates much of this thinking in innovative photomontages critiquing the technological forces that shaped notions of gender and race in Weimar society’s age of industrial assembly lines and advertising propaganda. The New Woman was in many ways a creation of the window-shop culture of Department stores and consumer products targeting working women as they took on the roles of clerks and secretaries in large urban centres, presenting a lifestyle image holding glamour and independence up as a spectacle to be slavishly imitated. Lya De Putti’s character mixes unconscious, robotic, sex-by-numbers dance motions with a primitive, raw exoticism that is a form of sexuality that echoes themes found in the work of Hoch, who explicitly went against the notions of racial purity that were to have such a destructive effect on German politics, to present hybrid forms of race and images of gender fluidity which are an attempt to provide alternatives to the shackles created by conservative gender attitudes and society’s commodification of femininity. Yet, it is the negative effect of this free expression on Boss Huller which is the main concern of the film, which presents Berta-Marie as an unwitting temptress, whose proximity sends Huller off the rails and leads him to do the unthinkable and abandon his family in order to mould this intoxicating creature into his idealised partner.

Huller and Berta-Marie move to Berlin in order that Huller might escape his hated domestic life, and to recreate his youthful days as a trapeze catcher par excellence. Here the movie takes on more of a documentary reportage tone, as it presents an introductory montage of city attractions and images that are largely guided by a brief shift of narrative focus that comes with the film’s depiction of the arrival in Berlin of famous Italian trapeze artist Artinelli, played by debonair British silent actor Warwick Ward. The backdrop to the development of the theme of a dejected (and initially sympathetic) Artinelli’s grief over the death of his performance partner-&-brother, during a stunt-gone-wrong at the London Coliseum, is provided by images that capture the real-life Tiller Girls (one of the many popular ‘girl revue’ acts that flourished internationally during the interwar years) arriving for rehearsals at the Berlin Wintergarten, and many other rea-life contemporary variety acts that are also shown actually performing their various routines on stage in front of the venue’s large audiences. Dupont is able to integrate such documentary verisimilitude with the film’s more melodramatic spectacle with surprisingly smooth results. When the Wintergarten’s manager presents Huller and Berta-Marie to Artinelli as prospective replacement partners for the Italian's dead brother, it is his immediate furtive sexual interest in Berta-Marie which alerts the viewer to the less noble aspects of his character, setting up the clash that is to come when Huller’s blind, idealistic romantic devotion meets Artinelli’s caddish behind-the-scenes scheming. The film’s middle section is sustained by the obvious tension that is inevitably generated when a romantic love triangle develops between performers who nightly hold each-other’s lives in the others’ hands as they pirouette above the heads of their amazed audiences.

It is at this point that the previously inscrutable Berta-Marie is made more clearly the centre of the narrative rather than merely a device for indicating Boss Huller’s dissatisfaction, or for galvanising his desire to radically alter his domestic circumstances. As the trio become the ‘toast of Berlin’, Berta-Marie is transformed into an exemplar of the ‘new woman’ portrayed so assiduously throughout contemporary German film and advertising during this period. Her sexually provocative ethnicity is now de-emphasised, and instead she becomes a modern, fashionably attired, cloche hatted woman of the streets, who enjoys the society of the city’s smoky cafes and the raucous nightclub culture of a neon-illuminated Berlin after dark. This movie can be read as an iteration of a contemporary consumer image culture which Hannah Hoch was critiquing with her Dada-inspired photomontages and which Frankfurt School social theorists such as Siegfried Kracauer analysed in collections such as Kracauer’s The Mass Ornament. Lya De Putti’s Berta-Marie is another Weimar era female film character in the tradition of those played regularly by the likes of Louise Brooks or Marlene Dietrich, who expand the repertoire of possibilities that could be made available to women of the 1920s. In presenting themselves as spectacle they gain independence through the power the image enables them to wield over men, but they invariably appear in narratives that judge and/or punish them for the privilege. In this instance, Berta-Marie's urban sophistication and glamour also leave her vulnerable to the attentions of people like Artinelli, who virtually rapes her in their initial sexual encounter! The fact that this forging of an urban feminine identity is only made possible by the all-conquering logic of industry-led consumer capitalism is as much a source of ambivalence in the narratives of the movies of this period as it is for the leftist ideologies expounded by Hoch and Kracauer: while Kracauer laments the ‘distraction culture’ augmented by mass-produced entertainments such as movies (whose methods echo the conveyor belt production methods of industry) or the internationally popular spectacle provided by Revue shows such as those practised by the Tiller Girls, who are “a product of American distraction factories [and] are no longer individual girls but indissoluble girl clusters whose movements demonstrate mathematics”, many of these ‘distractions’ are ultimately themselves presenting a compromising image of modern womanhood: the new modern identity Berta-Marie constructs for herself in Berlin, which is rooted in the acquisitive values of that modernity, results in her becoming vulnerable to the romantic follies Artinelli exploits to woo her with the aim of stealing her away from Huller, even though he has treated her roughly in order to have his way with her. Her willingness to dump Huller for a foolhardy dream is paralleled with Huller’s own thoughtless casting aside of his domestic arrangements in Hamburg and the abandonment of his wife and infant son this entails. But while male protagonists such as Boss Huller are presented as hapless, hopeless romantic sops who cannot be entirely blamed for their moral failings when society is radically transformed all around them by relations between men and women that have been unsettled by female emancipation, the situation for the female protagonists is even more tragic: they are simultaneously offered up as powerful avatars upon which female audiences can model themselves through the consumption of the attractive image they present, while also being portrayed as the ultimate cause of all society’s pain and turmoil.       

The Eureka Entertainment dual formatted edition offers numerous ways to experience the film. The original German cut, featuring a prologue that details Boss Huller’s fall from grace into a life of adultery and lust, is the recipient of the wonderful high-definition digital restoration created by the F.W. Murnau Society; but there is also a fairly decent tinted print included of the bowdlerised American cut for completests, which has many of the more risqué elements removed. The latter comes with a fairly traditional silent movie film score, but the German version offers us three quite diverse and distinct score choices that bring out different moods and qualities in the film: Stephen Horne, house pianist at London’s BFI Southbank, gives us a solid piano-based score with many lyrical moments that emphasise the story’s inherent tragedy; while New Zealand-based composer Johannes Contag contributes a slightly more strident piece of music. Composed for chamber orchestra and pitched at recreating the atmosphere of Weimar era Berlin, it was originally intended to be performed at live screenings. Both versions provide contrasting attempts to portray the psychological profile of the various characters in the movie using musical texture and melody. The third option here might be slightly more controversial: created by the prolific post-modern vaudevillian band The Tiger Lillies, who’re fronted by accordion player and self-taught opera singer Martyn Jacques, this is a brash, often wilfully abrasive avant garde modernist opera – a sort of burlesque punk rock take on Bertolt Brecht and Jacques Brel, that seems like it would have been perfectly at home in the decadent world of 1920s Berlin, but which often settles for simply describing on-screen events rather than providing emotional colouring for them. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting experimental approach to one of Germany’s greatest pieces of interwar drama.