Never underestimate the power of a title to deceive you. I have dreamed of many films that never were because their namesakes, stirred around for years in the acid vat that is my brain, lead my imagination in other directions. What was I expecting? Abwege. The Devious Path. Or literally, Astray …
I wandered into this strange and beautiful film from 1928, projected onto the dull, towering multiplex screen before me—a novel sight in itself—expecting to encounter something wretched and all-encompassing, something Stygian, wicked. A black-hearted vision of a moralist’s underworld perhaps. Abwege. I nestle into my seat, a throne clearly designed for the passive consumption of blockbusters. The cupholder alone is awesome in its scale; those nearby sit vacant. Then the film, accompanied by Richard Siedoff’s fine live piano soundtrack, begins. Fade in. Two women chat with each other on a loveseat, picking away at a plate of finger food in front of them. A soft-faced man peers serenely at the duo from a few yards away, sketching in his notebook. A profile of a woman’s face, the first woman—a blonde. Flat forehead; nose a sheer drop. Her long, stencilled eyebrows are like the legs of a spider. It’s Brigitte Helm, less than a year out from playing the totemic android in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). But you sense none of the same wildness. She too is serene, content with the discussion, the snacks, and the pleasant feeling of being watched and being watched well. She glances up at her admirer, smiling with the corner of her mouth. He returns the smile, his eyes flicking between her and her reproduction in lead on the drawing paper. We coast along on this feeling for several seconds before the friend interjects. Who knew G.W. Pabst had such a light touch?
Increasingly as the film continued, I became ensnared in the grip of Helm’s performance. Early on, her facial muscles barely seem to tremble, so subtle is her manner. That early scene on the loveseat, where undercurrents of yearning swirl and fill the air as these two creatures gingerly eye one another across the room, is beyond description. Pabst, for his part, about matches Helm’s prowess with his own innovations. He’s sometimes considered a great scenemaker rather than a great filmmaker; I don’t buy it. Just look at the simple way he approaches this sequence: no single shot calls attention to itself and yet as a viewer one is plunged without ado into a wellspring of feeling. Later in the movie, Pabst throws the viewer off-kilter with a handful of his mystifying, poetic abstractions. After her would-be lover abandons her (due to the machinations of her jealous husband), the Helm character retreats into a back room. Cut to the husband’s perspective: from where he’s standing, she’s a grey smudge on the wall, as seen through a screen door. The obscurity of the image is affecting. Like the husband, who is quite suddenly hit by the emotional consequences of his vengeance, you are witness to an abstracted though no less clear picture of her pain. Her profile may be warped by her own posture as she presses up against the screen door but it only amplifies the small details, manifested in gestures, of her distress. What exactly it is Helm is feeling at this moment is difficult to discern; we find out later that the attempted tryst with the sketch artist was just an impulse to rebel against her staid married life. After all, she does reassert her love for her husband in the final stretch, suggesting that her tears in this early sequence were more tears of confusion than abjection, or some combination of both.
But so too did Abwege’s lightness surprise me: it’s a very funny film, and often the droll, the sensitive, and the emotionally outsized share the same space without obtruding into the other’s territory. Helm’s wild oscillations between understatement and pantomime, chaos and order, laughter and terror are a marvel to behold. In the last half of the movie, her character is convinced to take some kind of opiate at a nightclub. What follows is far from the hallucinations seen in the previous night’s screening of Robert Reinhart’s great Opium (1919), which consist of demented men in devil suits prancing around by a lakeside, surrounded by half-dressed sirens—breasts visible through veil-like blouses—and cloaked in a superimposition of the lake’s ethereal, shimmering surface. Instead, Pabst is interested in the spasms of Helm’s body, her struggles (often hilarious) to refuse the command of the drugs swimming in her veins. She cuddles a ridiculous stuffed doll in front of the members of her party. She smirks while staring into dead air. She noodles her wine glass absentmindedly. She barks into the mouthpiece of a telephone, pulling dangerously close to the lens of the camera in so doing. Later, alone with a horny professional boxer in a bedroom, the twitching of her body with pleasure and hesitation—the confused excitement she feels as she is carried across the room by this beast to the bed—is a breakdown between performer and anatomy, actor and body. In one moment, Helm-Pabst portray a glissading stream of emotion, as she briefly ponders the idea that he might rape her. Excitement-fear-embarrassment, in one swoop. The boxer, lying on the bed and sensing her thoughts, bursts out laughing at her fearful assumptions. And then, after heading back downstairs to her scabrous group of drunken chums: “C’mon kids, we’re going back to my place!” Getting there, they discover her husband in a comatose-like state. Observe in awe the way her cheeks quiver with infinite delicacy as she approaches her husband on the bed, thinking he has died. Again, the complexity of the emotion—this is a man for whom she largely has contempt but whose death is clearly an imponderable prospect—intersects with Brigitte Helm’s significant physical imprint in the moment.
This tension somehow works to intensify the melodrama. I’m particularly partial to the moment where she strips down to her underclothes and commands her would-be lover to fling open the door to her jealous husband hammering away on the other side. The cinema filled with laughter at this crazy idea. At first she’s the Helm we know from Metropolis: eyes glaring, muscles animated with crazy energy, triumphant posture in which the contours of her skeleton are all too visible. Then, seeing her husband’s quiet pain, she pauses. She looks at him, and shame enters the scene. She raises a corner of the dress she has been clutching up to her lips, ever so subtly masking her exposed emotions. Hers is one of the great performances.