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The Forgotten: Harry Piel’s “What’s Happening at the Beely Circus?” (1927)

Writer-director-daredevil-star Harry Piel hunts a killer in a circus in this German silent romp.
Harry Piel was kind of a Doug Fairbanks or Harry Houdini figure in German cinema, starring in a series of action-adventure spectacles showcasing his derring-do and fearless stuntwork.
But first he was a writer-director, although an unusually dynamic one. He was nicknamed "the dynamite-director" because of the profusion of explosions in his movies. His acting career began when he got bored with remaining off-camera, and simply promoted himself to star. Not many of his films survive: many perished in a WWII air raid.
One that can still be seen is his circus mystery, Was ist Los im Zirkus Beely? (1927), in which Harry is falsely accused of murder and must uncover chicanery at a huge circus—not a traveling one, a permanent one, a mighty big top of stone. Piel gets a lot of exciting use out of this edifice, rather like the way Buster Keaton would exploit the structural qualities of a locomotive or ocean liner. Most of the film is set here, as Harry evades capture by the stalwart Inspector Bull and hunts the three villains, a vixenish vamp, a hulking henchman and a masked man of mystery. The latter is authentically alarming, his mask a good deal scarier than Michael Myers' melted Shatner visage.
There are some impressive feats, though unlike Houdini et al., Piel relied on a stuntman for the truly hazardous stuff. But he conquers and then befriends a rampaging tiger with what seems like mesmerism. Could Fairbanks do that? He has to resort to evasive tactics when thrown among lions: closeups show him wrestling with what's patently a man in a lion costume, or at any rate a head and arm. Did the rest of the costume exist, or were they just trying to frame it carefully to avoid being rumbled? The laughable effect is repeated so many times it attains a certain majesty, never convincing but eventually just accepted as part of the film's stylized showbiz texture.
Elsewhere, we have much dangling from ropes, a hydraulic platform which threatens to crush two separate characters, boxing dogs (they keep yawning in mid-fight) and an amusing POV shot when harry is stunned by a blow from behind and sees stars: spinning circles of stars, a very showbiz version of concussion.
Piel is a funny sort of leading man, plastered in make-up more even than was common at the time, his face a pasty pie, slashed with black lips. Tousled after a skirmish, he briefly resembles the great Robert Smith of the Cure. Not much of an actor, but a stylish and shameless poser, he's fun to watch in tuxedo or in leather chaps, impersonating a cowboy.
Piel was an enthusiastic but somewhat unsuccessful Nazi from 1933, who got in trouble for going off-message in his propaganda. Post-war, he was interned by the British and banned from movies for a few years. He never really got back on track, unlike many Party members. His film seems largely innocuous and apolitical, except that the henchman is a big black guy, and it feels uncomfortable watching him get apprehended by the circus orchestra at the end: a bunch of white guys walloping a black guy, even with the slapstick use of musical instruments as bludgeons, is apt to feel creepy.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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