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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Betty Ahman ~ Asphalt (1929) German silent film DVD

Asphalt (1929) is a German silent film. The film was one of the last silent films released in Germany as the world was entering the era of sound film.

In Berlin, a policeman called Holk is summoned to a jeweller's shop, where a beautiful young woman has tried to steal a diamond. En route to the police station, the woman takes Holk back to her apartment on the pretext of collecting some papers and ends up seducing him. Soon he finds himself caught between his duty and the woman he is falling in love with.

ASPHALT was one of the last films of the silent German Expressionist era - like Fritz Lang, director Joe May soon made the move to Hollywood, although failed to find the success there that Lang did. In ASPHALT, May sets a simplistic morality tale against the backdrop of modern, bustling city - there are none of the political overtones of other films of the time, but the picture remains both a technical triumph and a touching story of doomed love.

May opens the film with a bravura display of the cinematic techniques that were being pioneered at the time, capturing the industrial fury of modern Berlin. The director overlays frames of traffic as cars thunder through the city and performs some dramatic crane shots over the crowds and across the streets, all part of a massive set at the renowned UFA studios. Eventually, he comes to focus on just four characters - dedicated, hardworking cop Holk, his loving parents with whom he lives, and Elsie, the sultry would-be jewel thief who steals his heart.

In terms of events, very little actually happens in ASPHALT - in a modern picture, the entire 90 minute running time would probably just be compressed into the first act. So it's a testament to the skill of both the actors and the director that the film is quite as watchable as it is. Betty Amann, playing Elsie, is by turns cunning, sultry and fragile - her ambiguous performance is played largely with her eyes, and we are never sure if we are watching the 'real' Elsie, or just an act. Gustav Frohlich is a more straight-forward, stoic hero, but the haunted, terrified look on his face after he returns home after committing a terrible act towards the end makes for one of the film's most striking moments.

May's direction remains impressive throughout, although the more dramatic technical trickery is largely kept for the opening sequences. Nevertheless, the lighting, editing and camerawork help create an atmosphere charged with a sense of doomed inevitability, and the scenes between Amann and Frohlich carry an undeniable erotic charge. For all its innovation, ASPHALT is obviously a film of its era - the only dialogue is supplied by occasional inter-titles... Within two years, Fritz Lang's groundbreaking masterpiece M would make the likes of ASPHALT seem positively quaint by comparison, but this remains a little known but important part of cinema history. - Daniel Auty, The Spinning Image.

Directed by Joe May
Produced by Erich Pommer
Written by Hans Szekely
Starring Gustav Fröhlich, Else Heller, Albert Steinruck, Betty Amann
Cinematography Günther Rittau
Distributed by Universum Film AG
Release date: Germany~ March 11, 1929
Running time 93 min
Country: Germany / Language: Silent film / German-English inter-titles

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