Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Joyless Street (L.C.J. Editions & Productions, Sofar-Film, 1925)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Later last night I ran Charles an download of the 1925 German silent film The Joyless Street, directed by G. W. Pabst and written by Willy Haas and F. H. Lyon from a novel by Hugo Bettauer. It was one of a number of similarly gloomy melodramas made by German filmmakers in the mid-1920’s, largely as a response to the economic privation imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles and the disastrous hyperinflation of 1923 caused by the German central bank’s attempt to get out of the economic emergency by just printing more money. Though The Joyless Street is ostensibly set in Vienna, Austria just after the aftermath of World War I, the whole ambience is very much that of Germany (or the German-speaking world, since Austria had also been among the losers in World War I) in the mid-1920’s. What has kept The Joyless Street in circulation is that the second female lead is played by Greta Garbo in the only film she made between her departure from Sweden in 1924 — in the wake of her triumph in The Saga of Gösta Berling, the one film her mentor and discoverer, director Mauritz Stiller, actually got to complete with him — and her arrival in Hollywood in 1926, actually as an add-on since MGM wanted Stiller under contract and took her at his insistence that he wasn’t going to sign unless they signed her as well. (As things worked out, Stiller suffered the same fate genuinely creative and innovative directors usually did at MGM — the tumbrels rolled for him as they had for Stroheim, Sternberg, Rex Ingram, Frank Borzage, John M. Stahl, Rupert Hughes, Mickey Neilan and Buster Keaton — but Garbo stayed and for the next 15 years she never worked anywhere else until, with World War II having cut off the European market for American films, Garbo and Louis B. Mayer mutually agreed to cancel her contract.)

The print we were watching was an hour-long British reissue of a film that was originally twice that long, and though the credits (obviously prepared in the 1930’s) promised a synchronized musical score, the print unrolled in stark silence — I presume because the movie is in the public domain but the music was still under copyright. This is decidedly not the best way to watch a silent film, but even truncated and unaccompanied — and also pretty obviously censored, since descriptions I’d read of the uncut film said that Garbo’s character descended into prostitution at the end in order to help her family make ends meet, but no such scenes appeared in this version — it’s a powerful story of class conflict and dire poverty. The top-billed star in the original German version was Asta Nielsen, playing Mary, a young woman who’s trying to keep her and her family’s heads above water, but the editing of this version emphasized Garbo’s role as Greta Rumfort, daughter of retired civil servant Hofrat Rumfort (Jaro Fürth). The family, which also includes Greta’s younger sister (who turns up his nose at the family dinner and sneers, “Vegetable stew — again?”), are barely surviving on the pension from Rumfort’s retirement and Greta’s income as an office clerk-typist. Then Rumfort is persuaded to cash out his pension and invest the money in the Petrowitz coal mines — just as a group of financial speculators led by Egon Stirner (Henry Stuart) is determined to stage a hostile takeover of the Petrowitz mines by starting a rumor that the miners are about to strike, which will drive down the share price and thereby pick up Petrowitz for almost nothing. The film clearly owes a major debt to D. W. Griffith; not only is the basic plot line about the Petrowitz speculation straight from Griffith’s still-chilling one-reeler A Corner in Wheat (which appears to be the first film that intercut between wealthy people plotting a huge financial speculation and not-so-wealthy people driven into hunger and want by the success of the 1-percenters), and the scene in which Mary gets in an all-night line at a butcher shop that is promising the brief availability of frozen meat the next day and collapses before reaching the front of the line and learning all the precious meat has already been sold comes straight from Griffith’s German-made film Isn’t Life Wonderful, made the year before The Joyless Street.

What’s most surprising about The Joyless Street is how restrained Garbo’s acting is; generally she was a lot more active in her silents than in her talkies (in Gösta Berling and her early MGM film Flesh and the Devil she’s almost hyperactive), in this film she’s already mastered the legendary underacting that became her trademark. Through most of her suffering she keeps her face impassive and lets the audience read the character’s emotions into her (as Keaton did in his best comedies, and the Russian editors did when they spliced a closeup of an impassive actor next to shots of a bowl of soup, a young girl and a funeral, and audiences praised the actor’s expression of hunger when he saw the soup, attraction at the girl and grief at the funeral), and though the truncated version we were watching keeps it unclear exactly what Greta is expected to do in her job at the cabaret and whorehouse run by Madame Ball[1] — which appears to be a pretty raffish place, though not anywhere nearly as “low” as the one in Sternberg’s The Blue Angel five years later — it’s clear that she disapproves and is very nervous about it. Pabst seemed to delight in making films about people, especially women, caught in really dire situations — the other movies of his I’ve seen include his two with Louise Brooks, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, as well as the 1930 version of The Threepenny Opera (Bertolt Brecht disowned it but it’s still a great movie) and most of Siren of Atlantis, his last film before fleeing Germany to escape the Nazi takeover (though he later came back and worked on some of the Nazis’ documentaries as well as making a 1944 biopic called Paracelsus that used the great chemist’s life story to preach some pro-Nazi lessons about how all historical progress has been made by especially powerful individuals — still later he came to terms with his experience as both Nazi refugee and Nazi employee by settling in Vienna and making a movie in 1955 about the Third Reich’s end called The Last 10 Days) — and The Joyless Street is a tough, uncompromising film which is clearly Left in its politics but manages to present the class struggle in terms of human drama and avoid the preachiness that often afflicts Left-wing cinema (as bombast often afflicts Right-wing cinema; The Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will are great films but watching them one sometimes wants to stop and say, “Enough already!).

[1] — The titles describe her as a “dancer” but in the classic era of film “dance-hall girl” was a frequent euphemism for “prostitute.”