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"Variete", E.A. DuPont, 1925: FW Murnau Foundation Blu Ray 2015

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"Variete", E.A. DuPont, 1925: FW Murnau Foundation Blu Ray 2015

The first of the year's truly critical home video releases has arrived, and it is one incredibly mixed bag of emotions. 

On one hand we have the superatomic orgasm that constitutes the result of digesting the news that Variete itself has been restored on 35mm fine grain and scanned at HD and coded onto Blu Ray.

In these simple terms alone, the news blew me sideways and sent me stumbling like a drunken sod. I couldn't believe it--I had no news of such a thing even being in the works (partially owing to my out of the loop ness resulting from such a slow pace of key restorations of really obscure titles making it to home vid; eventually your mind just drifts elsewhere). Even if I had been paying attention and somehow missed it, I certainly wouldn't have expected Variete to make it out there in the land of home video, especially not on Bluy Ray, as the title has virtually no brand recognition out there on the street with casual cinephiles.

Very very few individuals know who the hell Ewald Andre DuPont was in the first place, and likely just as few have ever heard of the title itself. Variete is the intellectual territory of dudes like me and many of the folks I correspond with on web forums and via email: guys like Flixy, serdar, Tomasso, Lubitsch (I use their screen names here to protect their identities) .  .  .  professionals like Janet Bergstrom, Tag Gallagher, David Kalat and the like.

So my surprise roughly four weeks ago was complete when I heard that the restoration-to-disc was even underway. I pretty much creamed in my dry goods. For all intents and purposes, when I received the email that mentioned the forthcoming release, I giggled and squirmed and lubricated and flew across the skies powered by a Tinkerbell-like purity of joy and ecstasy.

Now the restoration has landed in my greasy mitts, and I repeat once again: what a god damned pile of mixed emotions is this thing. Happy-sad, joyful-pissed, content and ready to throw down with the disc's producer.

First the good: the image has been restored to a level of purity and cleanliness that I would have hitherto thought impossible on this particular title. I am a maniacal persuser of the upper and under-grounds when it comes to obscure corners of silent film land and the titles that might be tweezed out therein to have the dust blown off of them. I have seen Variete via Grapevine VHS (with the same transfer put to DVDR), television rips, and all manner of in-between... and everything that I'd seen had always indicated to me that (and this is based on television broadcasts from Europe, which can be a good indicator of things to come) the film didn't survive in very good shape.

Imagine my cooing and squiggling and giggling when I popped in this sucker and saw how gorgeous everything looks. The film recaptures its sense of the Berlin nitty grittty, of the sideline netherworld of carny hype and riff raff and ripoffs, with performers living on the outer fringes of the world and on campgrounds in wagons. Some of the subconscious seeds forTod Browning's Freaks, especially concerning the way that Huller and his wife live early on in the film, are visible in the environment that the characters move through in Hamburg. Karl Freund, the cameraman for Variete, clearly had a love for the substance of German life, and this love penetrated right down into the very ground that he walked upon. His love affair with the city of Berlin is keenly on display here in this film--and this regardless whether exteriors are real exteriors shot on location or assembled on sets within the plastic world of UFA; his masterful ability to conjure up within the viewer all of those same interior responses to the dizzy panoply of real life when watching his films--this is in abundance here. Freund would explore this conceit to much greater dept in Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) with Carl Mayer and Walter Ruttman for Fox Europa.

Freund here takes the inventive spirit which he brought to his immediately preceding work with FW Murnau, and goes full on nuclear. Despite claims to the contrary by those with nary a clue what Expressionism truly constitutes, this film is nowhere near utilizing ways and means of German Expressionism.

However, the film is rich with stimmung--rich deep expressive atmosphere that beautifully punctuates the story. The film is tinted very much along the lines of Murnau's Tartuffe--a simple ongoing brown sepia tone throughout. This tone lends a sense of shabbiness and age to the proceedings... the grim environment of the prison where the film opens; the sleazy carny hype of Boss Huller living his hustling midway life up in Hamburg with his scantily clad charges on display; in the backstreets of Berlin and the Wintergarten, the smoky pubs, the late night parties with circus freaks and vaudeville acts getting drunk; the dark world up near the ceiling of the Wintergarten inhabited only by the trapezists.

And then there are the camera movements--swinging, diving, sliding, crawling .  .  .  this film signaled the start of what Karl Freund called the beginning of the Era of Cameramen Crawling Around On Their Bellies, as other cameramen jumped on the bandwagon to set their cameras off like rockets high into the skies.

Telling the story of a love triangle set off by the arrival of a "motherless" Berta Marie (a gypsy brought in off of a ship, from which she inherits her name, by a sleazoid sailor played by the omnipresent Georg John) played by a sultry Lya DiPutti whose sexuality draws Emil Janning's Boss Huller away from his brokenhearted wife and their newborn babe.

Running away to Berlin with his new squeeze, Jannings (all told in flashback to a prison warded who elicits a confession from his longtime charge) eventually sets himself up with a trapeze act in a carny in the capital. A famous acrobat named Artinelli (of the fictionally-famed Artinelli Brothers), scheduled to perform a high ticket trapeze act in the top of the line Berlin Wintergarten, has just arrived in town to tell the hall's promoters that he has lost his brother from his act owing to a fall.

Known for his triple sommersault, Artinelli is about as high class as trapeze acrobats can come; a promoter of the Wintergarten who is aware of Boss Huller and Berta's act out in the sticks of Berlin suggests Huller as a new catcher for his sommersault act. "He is the best catcher in the business," he assures Artinelli.

Artinelli at first snickers doubtfully at the idea of a mere common carnival acrobat working with him, but ultimately winds up convinced after going out to the carny grounds where Jannings and Lya's characters are performing their routine.

I'll stop short here to avoid specific spoilers, but it is enough to say that immediate sexual sparks erupt between the wealthy acrobat and Berta Marie. The man who walked away from his wife and child up in Hamburg now has done to him what he did to his loved ones. It is a tale of depravity, redemption, of lust, of vice, of life on the fringes, of the obscure corners of the world that few people consider (and is also vanishing before our very eyes here in the 21st Century) .  .  .  and it is a sublime exercise in cinema.

"Variete", E.A. DuPont, 1925: FW Murnau Foundation Blu Ray 2015

An example of what we're used to seeing in the past.

E. A. Dupont clearly had an interest in the world of shabby entertainments, of the workaday grind of those folks who transit the shadowy world of vaudeville for their daily bread; the back rooms, the backstage world, the meager pay, the misshapen souls, the grotesquerie, rooming houses, bars, moments of the sublime colliding with the gross and the absurd. He would go on to explore these themes again in the sublime Piccadilly with Anna May Wong, and again with Moulon Rouge.

The less we talk about Neanderthal Man (1953), the happier we will all be in the end. We all need to eat, speaking of shabby .  .  .   . 

*   *   *   *   

This gorgeous potpourri of humanity and colliding plastic elements in Variete is all well and good on the visual plane; however, on the audio plane for the primary product there on the disc--the restoration of the primary German version--the producers have seen fit to commission what might perhaps constitute the most inappropriate score ever married to a silent film in the history of home video. 

To start we should say the obvious: all but the most ill-informed neophyte knows-- any time the human voice finds its way onto a silent film score, it's a problem. There have been examples of this before, and both involve the person of Donald Sosis and his Farmhouse Window Productions: first I think of a presentation of Nosferatu for home video release--Sosin's wife exlaimed "HUTTER!!" on the soundtrack when Greta Schroeder's character woke up in the middle of the night while her husband was under attack by Orlok in his castle. The other is for the Criterion King of Kings, where Ms. Sosin elucidates words like "Amen" and other prayers on the soundtrack, moving the film from cinematic experience to Christian Forced Church Interlude.

In all cases this requires the viewer to turn down the volume so that he or she does not become distracted from the going's on in the film. It always constitutes a pulling away, a bit of unwanted noise; it's almost like somebody talking to you while you are reading a book. It breaks the engagement of the subconcious mind--itself busy responding to the subsurface implications of the goings-on, and maintaining its immersion in the soupy sea of silent film atmosphere.

It is for this reason that the soundtrack commissioned for this disc by the F. W. Murnau Stiftung (Foundation) is Public Offender #1 in the whole pantheon of Bad Silent Film Soundtracks. Commissioned to the Tiger Lilies, a band that very well may be out in the regular world a perfectly enjoyable and functional band, this is a Bad Score For The Ages, an Abomination of Abominations, an example for all to observe, illustrating All That A Silent Film Score Should Never, Ever, EVER Be.

The score begins by offing itself right away: the famous scene, so wonderfully gloomy and shabby, shot in the dark halls and corridors of the prison when the warden summons Boss Huller to his office, to try and compel him to confess and unburden himself of his sins and perhaps earn an understanding that might lead to some form of profit .  .  . this scene is sung over with an utterly bizarre recitation, some bad poetry running along the lines of (I only listened once for a few moments and slammed the sound right off, this will be a parody to capture the spirit)

"They go down and Huller's brought-in

To the office of the ward-en

And so our tale begins

As Huller recites his sins .  .  ."

It's genuinely about as bad as bad can get. I understand that this underlining of the action with a recitation in words of what is clearly obvious onscreen via the action, this continues unabated.

I've done a decent share of audio commetaries in my time on my schreckbabble audio blog; us commentators have a self-editing function which causes us to internally cringe and make a right hand turn when we hear ourselves committing the cardinal sin of reiterating/narrating the surface action onscreen. I call this William Friedkin Syndrome--the man gives the most godawful frigging audio commentaries. "And this is where Charnier let's Popeye know that--"

Nothing is a bigger waste of the viewer's time than duplicating the onscreen action with words. You don't waste people's time telling them something they already know. You give them somthing new, even if it's just a theory or heartfelt appreciation. People love fanaticism--it's infectuous.

Thus this soundtrack commits two cardinal sins and kills itself completely dead: it speaks words over the silent film where a purely musical score is expected; and the words it speaks are patently obvious.

A friend of mine who has recorded audio commentary for my audio blog has identified a desparate attempt to gloss over the affair on behalf of the Murnau foundation here: apparently spotted by a wary observer who caught and recognized the last name of the poster as an employee of the Murnau Foundation.

I can't verify either way--but it is a truly sad situation indeed. The good news is that included on the disc is a cleaned up rendering of the Lasky Players / Paramount cut of the film taken from the US Library of Congress, and this has a more expected score: a stereotypical but welcome pipe organ style score in the spirit of the silent era.

Preston Clive/HerrSchreck

3/5/2015**


Published by , 06.03.2015 at 00:07
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Owen Stone
Owen Stone 7 March 15 14:47 I am happy that they are bringing back these classical movies to a modern format. Bluray is nice but it would be better to have it in a more open format, let's hope it doesn't get lost or stuck on bluray. Text hided expand
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Preston Clive
Preston Clive 9 March 15 16:21 I'm not sure if they made it available on SD DVD, but I'm definitely not complaining that they put it out on Blu, it sets a nice example, esp if it sells decently, that silent titles are viable on pure HD releases. But I think a dual format release would have been more user friendly, like Criterion and MoC often do. Text hided expand
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