Early & Silent Film

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Die schwarze Loo / The Black Dancer, Germany 1917.

Posted by keith1942 on April 10, 2018

This film was screened in the programme of ‘A Hundred Years Ago: 50 films of 1917 in 35mm’ at the 2017 Il Cinema Ritrovato. This was a vehicle for a major star of the period, Maria Orska. It was directed by Max Mack for the pioneer producer Jules Greenbaum at his Berlin studio.

The English title would seem to be misleading. Orska was not black in the contemporary sense and the word more likely refers to her social position and he outsider status. A German friend, Bodo Schönfelder, gave me some advice regarding the words and their usage in the period. This throws a light on the film title and its possible denotative and connotative meanings at the time.

“The name Loo could be an abbreviation, shortened or an invention to put the person in line with woman with names like Lou, Lulu, or Lola, to promise erotic adventures.: loo is a ‘dirty’ abbreviation of Louise. The most well-known example in German film history is Marlene Dietrich as Lola Lola. The Hitchcock film Stage Fright (1950) in Germany was titled Die Rote Lola (The Red Lola) for obvious reasons.

The attribute black could refer to several things: ‘deep black hair’, either for the person in the film. (here she is a Gypsy) or the actress/dancer. Maria Orska had real very dark hair and appeared in public or on stage in this way and was known for this.

A second line of possibilities for the meaning of black concerns specially designed or selected dresses for women, with an erotic component too. Both hair and dress, at least in German culture, can have a dangerous erotic aspect. There were a lot of cheaply made paintings of very dark haired gypsy women with burning eyes. Pola Negri is an example: ‘The Black Pola’. Pola is a real German name, but here it is alluding to her Polish origin.

There is also the possibility that the newspapers and magazines referred to Maria Orska as ‘the’ or ‘a black dancer’ for her stage performances. Valeska Gerd, a dancer, was the woman who ran the bordello in The Joyless Street (Die freudlose Gasse, 1925), and was labelled as ‘The Black Dancer’ for her stage performances. Since the name Loo makes no sense outside the German speaking culture, most likely the English version changed the name to the descriptive term.”

This certainly fits with the film as I experienced it. We first meet Loo (Orska) in a street as she enters a bar and offers to dance for money. She is clearly an object of erotic fascination for the predominately male audience here. And the bar itself, below street level, is cheap and tawdry. Later in the film a fight causes a police raid and Loo is is arrested, but later released. She dances with her dark hair flowing loose with suggestions of erotic promise, something reinforced by the style of her dancing.

The notes in the Festival catalogue by Karl Wratschko make this point.

“As anyone studying her work today will realise, Orska possessed a genuine erotic charisma which she used to great effect in her notoriously risqué performances.”

In fact the film offers both erotic and risqué pleasures whilst at the same time presented a moral fable. Loo is seen by a young, unknown composer. He is smitten with Loo and offers her food and shelter. She stays with him whilst he works at composing what should be his Opus Magnus. Her dancing inspires the music including that of a Hungarian theme. He dies just as he has completed this work: Loo is absent at this point whilst briefly arrested..

Loo returns to dancing and finds a new protector. However, the young composer has left Loo his possessions, including a trunk which contains his manuscript and a letter to Loo begging her to see his work and his name are published,. By the end of the film Loo is in a morally acceptable relationship and is following the final request of her dead lover.

The film style is typical for the period with the action and characters presented mainly in long shot. The print retained the tinting from the period,. Including a red tint for a moment of erotic drama. The film uses symbolism, so a superimposed skull foretells the death of the composer. And later in the film more superimposition is used as Loo dreams of her dead lover.

Orska’s character dominates the film. The Catalogue quotes a contemporary review:

“Maria Orska, the brilliant, spirited actress manages her role with such verve and, at times, diligence and power, that everything else around her fades.” (The ‘Neues Kino-Rundschau, May 1918).

The print, of four reels, from Deutsche Kinemathek was reasonably good quality. And the piano accompaniment was played by Daan van den Hurk.

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