E.A. Dupont had perhaps the most precipitous career trajectory of any German filmmaker of the silent years, plunging from the pinnacle of his native industry to the stinky depths of The Neanderthal Man (1953) in Hollywood. Supposedly the secret of his lack of success was an incident in 1939 when he was fired for slapping a bit player on the set of a Dead End Kids picture, and he spent a decade working as a talent agent (helped no doubt by his obvious sympathy for performers, ahem). It might be observed that if you're directing a Dead End Kids picture your career has already descended a few notches since your UFA heyday.
Varieté (1925) was Dupont's breakthrough film, and today it's remembered more in film histories than it is actually seen: there's never been a DVD to my knowledge, and the copies drifting about in cyberspace are patchy and aged off-air recordings with intertitles pieced together in the seventies, from the look of things. The movie led directly to Dupont's British hits Piccadilly and Moulin Rouge, bloodstained melodramas with a sleazy showbiz background, but this is the prototype.
Emil Jannings plays Convict 28, summoned to the governor's office to learn of his wife's plea for clemency after ten years in the slammer. He's never before spoken of his crime, but moved by her fidelity, he begins to tell his sorry tale:
Now we're in a Hanburg carnival, where we meet a younger Jannings, who's a former circus acrobat, which stretches credulity like pretzel dough, who takes in a nameless "foreign girl," Lya de Putti. Jannings' domestic arrangements are rather unsatisfactory and soon he's plotting to ditch his wife and baby in her favor. Overlooking his bulbous physique, simian features and glowering, violent personality, she's soon de Putti in his hands and they alight for Berlin.
Meanwhile, trapeze artist Artinelli (lanky Brit Warwick Ward) is in search of a new act, having dropped his brother at the London Palladium, and he selects Jannings and de Putti as likely co-stars, leading to an inevitable triangle that's not so much romantic as pungently sexual.
Believing the portly Jannings as one-third of an aerialist act is hard work, and the body double seen in long shots compares to the Oscar-winner as Gary Cooper does to Jack Oakie. Added to this is the rather unsympathetic treatment given to all the principle players. If you can overlook this, you can be truly dazzled by some of the filmmaking.
This was the age of the "unchained camera," and while Dupont doesn't scale the heights of Murnau's The Last Laugh, he seems determined to try, with cameraman Karl Freund devising ingenious rigs which allow us to swing on the trapeze alongside the actors, swooping over the heads of the crowd. And what a crowd! Added to the kinetic thrust and flash are leering closeups of audience members, grotesques out of Grosz. From start to finish, the film is more concerned with capturing grime, lust, physical peculiarity and violence than it is with story or character. Which is fine, once you accept that that's what it's all about, this time round.
It's ironic that Dupont's silent work should be not only so vigorous but so fast. In 1929 he made his first talkie, Atlantic, about the Titanic sinking, in which, despite the impressive spectacle of the ship-sinking sequences, he became rather infamous for the ponderous treatment of the dialogue. The scene at 40:45 will give you a good idea. If you have the courage to then watch the whole thing, I take my hat off to you.
But as I say, there's no hanging about with Varieté, except that which is done from sturdy cables before a paying audience, and it's time somebody made the film available again so we can appreciate the chiaroscuro lighting, chunky architectural compositions, and propulsive camera movements as they were meant to be seen.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.