Varieté (1925) | Roll up for a gripping story of jealousy and hell with Emil Jannings and – The Tiger Lillies?
A key work of German silent cinema and an international smash on its release in 1925 and 1926, director EA Dupont’s Varieté is a visually arresting melodrama in which jealousy drives a man to murder.
When carnival concessionaire Boss Huller (Emil Jannings) meets young émigré Berta-Marie (Lya De Putti), it kindles his desire to relaunch his career as a trapeze artist. Deserting his wife (Maly Delschaft) and infant son, he sets out with Berta-Marie to Berlin where the two are soon hired by famed aerialist Artinelli (Warwick Ward) to headline the city’s premier circus attraction at the famed Wintergarten theatre. But while Boss rejoices in his new-found fame, Artinelli begins an illicit affair with Berta-Marie, which – when uncovered – drives Boss to plot his revenge…
This German silent masterpiece, which is told in flashback as an imprisoned Boss tells his tale to win his freedom, was instrumental in bringing its director Ewald André Dupont to the attentions of Carl Laemmle at Universal, who brought him to Hollywood.
But while Dupont never quite achieved the level of success in the US as he did in his native Germany (he was reduced to B-movie’s and genre fare like 1953’s The Neanderthal Man), his cameraman was the legendary Karl Freund, one of the pioneers of German Expressionism, who lensed The Golem (1920) and Metropolis (1927), and whose lustrous monochrome cinematography flair turned Universal’s Dracula (1931) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) into genre classics alongside his directorial efforts, The Mummy (1932) and Mad Love (1935).
Varieté’s success is quite simply down to Freund’s visuals, and the brooding central performances from Emil Jannings and Lya De Putti. The camerawork is hugely inventive here. It ranges from the use of a handheld camera to mimic the movements of acrobats – which culminates in a spectacular scene involving a blindfolded triple somersault; imaginative shots like a close-up of an ear dissolving into high heels walking along a corridor to capture the characters’ pent-up passions; and the use of cinema verite – horse shit on marble steps, the sad faces on fairground pageant girls in states of undress, drunk revellers dancing on tables, heavily made-up circus patrons – to give the melodrama its subtle social commentary.
Freund’s close-ups also capture the artistry of Jannings – a master of controlled emotion, who can turn his Boss from alpha male to wounded lover in a single glance; as well as the cold beauty of De Putti, who looks every inch the femme fatale, and the wonderfully villainous turn from Warwick Ward, who looks a dead ringer for Basil Rathbone and Conrad Veidt.
As part of Eureka!’s The Master of Cinema Series, Varieté is presented here in a new restoration by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation of the original German 1:34:28 version, with PCM audio on the Blu-ray and optional English subtitles.
The special features include a choice of three scores, from Stephen Horne, Johannes Contag and The Tiger Lillies, plus the complete American version of the film that was released on 27 June 1926 which tightens up the story by juggling scenes and cutting some out altogether, including one that was disapproved by the US censor (de Putti disrobing). A booklet featuring new writing and archival images is also included.
When I heard that The Tiger Lillies would be composing one of the three scores on this release, I thought this tale of jealousy and hell and ultimate redemption was the perfect match for the avant-garde British musical trio’s dark cabaret sound. And it most certainly is, working best when the group whip up a frenzy of accordion, band saw and Theremin, while lead singer Martyn Jacques uses a host of different vocal tones to utter the word ‘Variety’, as the film’s moves inexorably towards its heated climax. Now that I’ve hear their score, I can’t wait to revisit this little gem again to hear the other two scores.
Posted on January 25, 2017, in Drama, Must-See, Silent, World Cinema and tagged 1920s German silent, E A Dupont, Emil Jannings, Eureka! Classics, German expressionism, Karl W Freund, Silent, The Masters of Cinema Series, Varieté. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.