Early & Silent Film

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Posted by keith1942 on August 16, 2012

 “Asphalt begins with a montage sequence, shot at night, in which workers stomp down flaming-hot semi-liquid asphalt to pave a street. …The smooth and shiny asphalt serves in this film as a metaphor for a metropolitan “surface culture” that stressed exteriorly and sparkling facades, but also implied pretence and deception. ‘Asphalt’ in late Weimar was shorthand for an all-encompassing cosmopolitan modernity: unsurprisingly, Joseph Goebbels used the term ‘asphalt’ as an anti-Semitic slur.” [Anton Kaes, Catalogue of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto].

One of the conflicts in the film is between this smart, contemporary urban world of consumerism and nightlife and the more traditional home values of the German petty-bourgeoisie. The latter are represented by the hero Albert Holk and his parents. He has followed his father into a career with the police. Whilst his mother is an almost stereotypical and doting hausfrau. His mundane duties directing city traffic are disrupted when he chances to come into contact with the glamorous but morally dubious Else. Even more complications arise when her criminal ‘friend’ returns to the city. This is a fairly typical silent era melodrama involving romance, crime and possible redemption. The combination of worlds enable the film to offer a ‘moral ending’, whilst “in a knowing, ironic way, it revels in images of consumption, luxury and fashion, finding ever-new ways to highlight moments of voyeurism and exhibitionism. It is this visual self-awareness that makes Asphalt a real jewel of silent cinema.” [Anton Kaes].

As with the opening montage the film uses visual metaphors to comment on both characters and actions. In the opening scene in the Holk family home we se a cranny in a cage. This is a comment not just on the fate of the criminal characters in the film but to some degree on all the characters. Else’s apartment offers a storing contrast, proffering an aid of decadence. The uniforms of the police father and son are also important. At the point that Holk senior recognises his duty he dons the uniform coat followed by his metalled hat. Albert has cap, as befits a junior rank, but this falls from his head at a charged moment in Else’s apartment. And the shots that follow draw a striking contrast between her elegantly clad legs and his shiny leather boots. There also seems to be some phallic play with two objects: the cigars smoked by Holk senior and offered to Albert by him and by Else: and an umbrella that Albert plays with, especially when he visits Else’s apartment.

A similar sense of irony can be found in the printed dialogue. Early in the film we se the impressive shopping streets of Berlin and the activities of a small team of pickpockets. As a fellow criminal is arrested by Albert one remarks to the other about the difference between ‘an old pro and amateur’. As the film progresses that this distinction also applies between Holk senior and Holk junior. However, Mutter Holk is a more serious and emotional presentation. At one point we se her holding her prayer book before leaving for Sunday Service. Whilst the father is impelled by a sense eof duty, the mother is taken with her love for her son. These feminine virtues [as they are portrayed] become key when the films moves to resolve the criminal acts and the romance between Albert and Else.

The performances and the mise en scene provide a fairly visual presentation. The title cards are relatively sparse and the audience is expected to follow much of the action by the character interaction and their use of objects and props. There is an especially fine sequence when Albert makes a confession to his parents. There are only two Intertitles in a fairly lengthy sequence, one as the scene begins and one as the scene closes.

The mise en scene contributed to the story in other ways. There is a visual trope of tunnels and corridors. These are accentuated by light and shadow, and filmed in fairly deep focus. There are two particularly powerful sequences where first a distraught Albert, and later a sacrificial Else, make their way down and away from the viewers. The different facets of life in the great metropolis are illustrated with beautifully detailed scenes: at the Holk family home, along the crowded and fashionable streets of shops and stores, and in the luxury of the demimonde’s apartment.

The film is a lavish studio production. There are a few exterior locations and travelling shots, but most of the impressive sequences of city life were filmed at the giant Neubabelsberg studio. This was the largest and most advanced film production facility in Europe: Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis was filmed in the same studio.

The film was produced as the world of silent cinema was being replaced by the new technology of sound: Hollywood’s The Jazz Singer [1927) had its Berlin premiere only three months later.

The director, Joe May, started in film in 1912, and for a period ran his own production company, May Films. The producer was Erich Pommer, one of the key players in the success of Ufa in the 1920s. Both men ended moving to Hollywood with the advent of the Nazis. They directed and supervised some of the finest craft people in German film: then in the vanguard of European cinema. These included the Cinematographer Günter Rittau and the Production Designer Erich Kettelhut. They, along with some of the cast, had worked on earlier German masterpieces like Dr Mabuse der Spieler (Dr Mabuse the Gambler, 1922), Der Letze Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924), and Metropolis 1926).

There were particular genres favoured in the German cinema and two of these contributed to the overall feel of Asphalt. These were the ‘Street film’ Straßenfilm [‘street film’] and Kammerspielfilm [‘chamber film’]. The characters are mainly ‘little people’ and their experiences emphasise the clash of the public and the private. The film also fits into a cycle of late 1920s films that play with the tawdry world of sexual attraction and exploitation, which includes Varieté (1925) and Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930)

These films also displayed the technical prowess and development that were an important aspect of the industry. The opening sequence of the film presents a series of superimposition’s and relatively fast editing. And throughout the film there are the stylistic qualities that characterised the best German films. The Neubabelsberg studio enabled the construction of large and impressive sets, and the exteriors in Asphalt are both sizeable and realistic. And the interiors are beautifully designed and emphasise the contrasts between the different lives across the city. There is a constant play with light and shadow, chiaroscuro, a technical expertise that first caught attention in the earlier Expressionist films. And there are there are spectacular shot using the entfesselte camera [‘unchained’ camera’]; displaying the prowess in tracks, dolly movement and crane shots.

A contemporary review by Siegfried Kracauer praised ‘the finesse of his craft … the wide shots are used and sustained with enormous strength of style, and the roaming camera is extremely skilled in the way it reveals human co-existence and spaces.” [Quoted in film notes by R. Dixon Smith].


Ufa, 1929, black and white, silent with Intertitles. 2574 metres, running time 93 minutes at 24 fps.  Director: Joe May. Producer: Erich Pommer. Scenario: Fred Majo [Joe May], Hans Székely, Rolf E. Vanloo [also story]. Cinematography: Günter Rittau. Production Design: Erich Kettelhut, [Robert Herith, Walter Röhrig]. Costumes: Renè Hubert.

Cast: Gustav Frölich – Hold / policeman. Betty Amann – Else Kramer. Albert Steinrück – Police Sergeant Holk. Else Heller – Mother Holk. Hans Adalbert Schlettow – Else’s friend.

Filmed at Ufa Neubabelsberg Studio, late 1928. Premiere: Ufa-Palast am Zoo, Berlin March 1929.

The film has been screened at both Il Cinema Ritrovato and Il Giornate del Cinema Muto. More recently it was screened as part of the series of Silent Film with Live Accompaniment at the National Media Museum, Bradford. The accompanist was Darius Battiwalla.

This was a print with English language titles, including extra title cards like the one that explained the connotation of the German title. The print was also shorted that the German version: this seems to have been due, at least in part, to some form of censorship. A scene where Else ‘vamps’ Albert was shorter in the UK version.

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