June 7, 2018
Four around the Woman – 1921, Germany
If I had my way, the poster for Fritz Lang’s 1921 drama, Four around the Woman, would be accompanied by the following tag – The story of a decent woman and the men who didn’t deserve her. Notice I’ve taken out the number four, for while the number is indeed pertinent to the plot, Lang’s version of Germany circa 1921 is hardly the land of gentlemen. Instead, it’s a place when men congregate in smoke-filled taverns around mid-day and have their fill before resuming their work. It’s a place where people leer at men they envy and make reference to the beauty of their wives, and coming from them, such sentiments are not always compliments. They’re warnings, indirect ways of placing these women’s heads on bulls-eyes and announcing their less-than noble intentions. It’s telling that no one takes issue with any of the sentiments expressed.
First, a note of caution. Four around the Woman is an incomplete film, and it is clear that much of what was lost had to do with the film’s first act, for the first twenty minutes of so of the film are so unfocused and opaque that it seems only logical that scenes existed that helped fully flesh out what now resembles a jigsaw puzzle missing every other piece. For example, in this part of the film, we learn a certain character is involved in white collar crime and masquerades, yet we never learn if his actions are the result of money problems or a defect in his moral compass. Another character arrives saying he’s looking for someone, and then just sits around lounging aimlessly, waiting – for what, I was not entirely sure. All I could tell was that there was a man looking for his brother, a brother not wanting to be found, a husband (Ludwig Hartau) disguising his identity so that he could purchase jewelry at a bargain from people down on their luck, and Florence (Carola Toelle), the woman who thinks the world of the criminal schmuck. The fourth man referred to in the title is the husband’s assistant, and he shows up at Florence’s door with flowers and a devious plan to – for lack of a better word – “woo” her.
Fortunately, once the first part of the film has mercifully ended, the film begins to make sense, and it becomes quite enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed Lang’s use of flashbacks, or should I say parts of one? In an interesting scene, Florence begins to tell her friend Margot (Lisa von Marton) about a particularly important night – the night she got engaged to a man she didn’t want to marry. This led to an unexpected visit by the man she did love, but their conversation ended up being quickly interrupted by Florence’s fiancé. If you asked, “And then?” you have something in common with Margot. Yet a narration of the subsequent events is put on hold after Florence’s maid brings word of a visitor. And so we wait, but this time it’s a good kind of wait, for the rest of the story proves to be the catalyst for much of the drama that transpires.
Does the film ever fully come together? Sadly, it does not. Oh sure, it ties up a number of loose ends, but it leaves Florence high and dry. It seems to suppose that a decent woman will naturally fall in love with a man she is forced to marry, and that, even when there is another in her heart, the right course of action is to dedicate her life to pleasing the guy you never wanted to be with in the first place. It’s matchmaker propaganda at its finest, and Florence is its poster child. That these views were much more prevalent in the early part of the twentieth century, I have do doubt, yet watching them be portrayed as the truest evidence of a good wife just seems wrong, especially given the fact that a better choice is standing right next to her. In fact, given how the film ends, I wondered what the purpose of the more attractive alternative was. It seems to me it was to make Florence’s emotional words all the more stirring. Modern audiences are more likely to interpret them as evidence of a society that valued order much more than individual contentment.
When the good folks at the now shuttered website notcoming.com reviewed The Wandering Shadow, the film Lang made prior to this one, they pondered the best way to review it - Should they highlight small signs of the genius that Lang’s later work reveal him to be, be honest about the film’s narrative mess, or just express elation that the film survives at all? Having seen The Wandering Shadow, I would reference the first and last aspects momentarily, yet spend most of my time on the quality of the film. And let’s be honest, the quality cannot be said to be high if what remains presents viewers with fragments that do not come together to produce a compelling narrative. For such films, the overused phrase for collector’s only seems entirely appropriate.
Watching the first part of Four around the Woman, I found myself experiencing a dose of déjà vu, and a sense of dread came over me. Yet unlike The Wandering Shadow, enough survives of Four around the Woman for viewers to fully understand the film’s plot and to make a critical assessment of the film. In truth, it did blow me away; still, I did become invested in it. I wanted Florence to find happiness, and as the film went on, I was sure that she would. To me, the ending is less a cop-out than a sign of the times. This is a world that women had to endure, one in which what is presented as a happy ending could be anything but, and I for one am glad Lang had the guts to say so. (on DVD as part of Kino Classics Fritz Lang: The Early Works)
*Four around the Woman is a silent film with English intertitles.