Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Asphalt (Joe May) ****

Director: Joe May

Cast: Gustav Frohlich, Betty Amann, Albert Steinruck, Else Heller

Background: Joe May was one of the earliest German filmmakers, directing his first film in 1911. He was responsible for giving Fritz Lang his first job in film, employing him as a screenwriter. Gustav Frohlich gained notoriety for playing the hero in Fritz Lang's sci-fi epic Metropolis. This was Betty Amann's first major film role.

Story: Elsa Kramer (Amann) is a thief who gets caught stealing a diamond from a jewelry store, but successfully seduces police officer Albert Holk (Frohlich) to not turn her in. Their steamy romance now threatens to ruin his career.

Thoughts: Now, this is a wonderful film and Betty Amann is chief among the reasons, with her amazingly expressive eyes working magic on the camera. This is a film that would have been hard to do in sound. For example, the lengthy sequence where Elsa begs Albert to let her go may have grated a bit with spoken dialogue, as some of her histrionics would seem a bit ridiculous. Instead, the focus is simply on her facial expressions, and she woos him by suggestively batting her eyes. And what's really amazing about the performance of the two actors is that you'll find yourself actually hoping this romance can work out somehow, no matter how damaging that would be to Albert. Elsa is clearly wrong for him and sends him on a downward spiral, but Amann's performance is so deep and layered that you believe she might actually like him, too. The final scene might sound hokey on paper, but her eyes work that magic one more time for a memorable conclusion.

Postscript: Joe May fled Nazi Germany before World War 2 and had some success directing b-movies such as The Invisible Man Returns. Betty Amann made her way to Hollywood, but only made a few films before retiring in 1943. Gustav Frohlich would have a long career in German films.

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