Asphalt (1929)

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  • directed by Joe May
  • starring Betty Amann, Gustav Frohlich, Albert Steinruck, Else Heller
  • A Berlin policeman is caught between his desires and his duties when he allows himself to be seduced by a woman accused of robbing a jewelry store.

“Do you really think I became a thief out of need?”

From the opening scene of a bustling, kaleidoscopic Berlin cityscape to the bits of noir and Expressionist imagery featured throughout, it was clear that director Joe May aimed to heighten this simple story as much as possible with style. On first glance, the cold, hard title of Asphalt seems counter to that mission and to have nothing to do with Albert Holk’s increasing mania brought upon by the cunning criminal Else Kramer. How Berlin was captured by May, though, and that exhilarating opening sequence in general, tethered all that followed to the seedy, illicit aura of the city at night. The streets of Berlin, where the traffic cop once did right by the city, were now suggestively held responsible for chewing him up and spitting him out.

Of course in the story-world it was Else Kramer, one of silent film’s great characters thanks to the beautiful and dominant Betty Amann, who did all the heavy lifting to send him spiraling down. Else can hysterically cry, feign sickness, or effortlessly seduce a man at the drop of a hat, deploying whichever is necessary in any situation to escape trouble, something she finds herself in often. Albert falls hard for this when trying something as simple as bringing her in for an arraignment yet somehow, after trick after trick, is borderline molested by Else at her apartment. There is no actual hypnosis involved, although it is teased, but an uninhibited sexual display by Else is enough to render all the Berlin men that we see completely powerless.

The pair separate after that first encounter and both seemed consumed by the experience. It plays on one hand like a typical love story but with one participant’s intentions being completely unreliable. Everything about their scenes together is just a little off. Else is mostly shown towering above him in the traditional couple scenes. Their first kiss features her forcefully jumping, climbing, and looking down on him. When they meet later and he confesses his love, he is on the floor holding her in bed. When she gets up, he clings to her legs like a desperate child. She struck me as a female Von Stroheim creation at some points, equally as depraved and predatory, and not something one would expect from a Flapper-looking 1920s leading lady.

Gustav Frohlich, well-known from Metropolis, is terrific in Asphalt though his role is little more than tortured meat for most of it. Any semblance of Albert as a masculine, by-the-book officer of the law is quickly gone as he’s lowered himself to a mere subject of Else’s will and she is never quite as in love with him as he is her. It was hard for anybody else to shine in the film because there is hardly any screen to share aside Betty Amann’s tour de force. In terms of appearance and how she was presented, there was very little separating Amann from Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, or other prolific talents of that era. It was all dark features, knowing eyes, and soft lighting in close-up. The ruthless character of Else and how naturally Amann shifted between femme fatale and damsel in distress was one part of a tide-turning in 1929 toward complex and dominant female characters.

There might never be full agreement amongst fans and film scholars on where film noir began, when it began, or what it even is, but the many narrative and visual aspects of the genre are loose and hazy enough that you can track its inception and influence far before the standout American titles of the 1940s and 50s. German Expressionism in particular, with its ability to create tension and darkness through distorted or askew visual choices is a great point of influence for the later noir movement.

The brand of Expressionism found in Asphalt is practical as opposed to theatrical, achieved through editing, framing, and lighting. Albert’s world becomes ruled by passion and lust with his moral grounding completely twisted by the end, a very noir-like arc for the character, and May keeps up with this dive by creating a frenzied and ominous Berlin. In these ways it is easy to point to Asphalt, as well as countless other titles from this era, from von Sternberg, Lang, and others, as a visual template for the noir movement for others to Americanize and expand upon.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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