Variete – Germany, 1925
I want to like E.A. Dupont’s Variete – I really do. I want to praise it for its masterful use of close-ups and for the way Dupont lets his camera linger of the faces of his actors, enabling views to see them either run a gambit of emotions or stick with one sentiment for such a long time that we understand exactly what the character is thinking. I want to extol the impressive camerawork during the film’s acrobatic scenes, scenes in which we get a combination of long shots, which stress the complexity and hazard of what the lead characters are attempting, and close ups, which, when compares to earlier scenes, provide more evidence of the changes that have taken place. I want to sing the praises of the cast, and their extraordinary ability to be in the moment and to project their character’s inner monologue. In other words, I want to be able to say ignore the disjointed plot and just embrace the spectacle, but something won’t let me.
There are, of course, movies that have been praised more for their atmosphere, photography, and cinematography than for their narrative cohesion, films such as Dark City, Donnie Darko, and L’age D’or, which were great to look at and narratively a bit of a head-scratcher. Some of these films have even wound up on end-of-year lists and nominated for awards. In fact, the description of the back of Kino Classics Blu-ray edition of Variete proclaims the film to be “a rediscovered masterpiece,” and I have no doubt that there are many who would agree with this classification. I’m just not one of them. Plot matters, and it is there that my conflict can be found.
Variete is about a carnival performer, referred to as the Boss (extraordinarily well played by Emil Jannings), who becomes entranced with a young dancer (Lya De Putti) whom fate just happens to place at his mercy. He is at first indifferent to her, but as the days goes by, he gradually becomes enthralled - peaking at her during her performances and, in one particular scene, mentally comparing her wondrously youthful physical features to those of his far less-toned wife. (To be fair, she has recently had a baby.) The young lady, referred to as “The Strange Girl” in the opening credits, as well as “Berta-Marie,” which is the name of boat she sailed in on, is put off at first, but soon she develops a habit of stowing away in his trailer and stealing furtive glances, each of which reveal a more interested state. Soon the two are embracing, and the Boss is giving in to his baser, much more lustful instincts. This is the only context in which a scene in which he strikes her and she begs him not to be mad at her is remotely justifiable, and even then it is still deeply disturbing.
For the most part, the beginning is fascinating, and it sets up expectations of a raw, captivating film about the results of throwing caution to the wind and giving in to lust. Yet this impression actually doesn’t gel with the film’s opening scene, one that is set in a prison in an unspecific future and one that references the Boss’s’s extraordinarily devoted wife and child. In other words, this is not a story of sin, but redemption, for no film references a wife and child’s undying devotion so early on unless their loyalty is rewarded in the end.
What follows, though, is a recalibration of the relationship we thought had its genesis and bond in animal attraction. Soon, we see the Boss and Berta-Marie walking arm in arm, laughing, as if they were soul mates who had a much longer and more fulfilling courtship than they did. She is even referred to as his wife, which is odd considering what we learn in the film’s opening scene. The two are performing a trapeze act in a traveling carnival (Just how she became such an expert at it in such a short time is never explained.) when they are approached about joining the act of a much more established trapeze artist named Artinelli. Berta-Marie embraces the idea; the Boss has his reservations, though just what they are is never explained. Eventually, he acquiesces, making the pair a threesome, and these things rarely turn out well. Just ask the characters in Wings.
The film is replete with thrilling scenes of daring acrobatic feats, and it is quite bold in its depiction of a coupe as physically drawn to each other as they are. I was consistently impressed with both of the lead performances and completely enthralled by long shots of the Boss as he ruminates on his predicament. There are times when he is actively trying to quell his inner demons and prevent the carnage that their release would create. It’s only reasonable that they’ll eventually be unleashed, yet I must say that the where, when, and how were unexpected.
So, what is my problem with the film? Well, for starters, the film embraces a sickening myth that romance can begin with an assault, as long as the man doing the assaulting is also an amazing kisser. Second, the film’s first twenty minutes are practically devoted to creating the impression that Berta-Marie is a temptress who possesses a hypnotic-like power and uses it to her advantage. However, that characterization is never fully bought into. For one, her dancing is the opposite of sexy, this despite the rather revealing attire she adorns. It doesn’t help that de Putti never seems at ease during these scenes, which is peculiar, since they’re much tamer than some of her scenes with the Jannings. In fact, other than a customer who climbs on stage while she’s performing, there’s no evidence that anyone other than the Boss is emotionally undone by her. Later, after she has absconded with her man, the references cease entirely.
Finally, the film’s bookends made the Boss out to be the real victim without providing any evidence that he is no longer the brutally violent man we saw several scenes earlier. Instead, we’re just reminded that somewhere is a wife that has endured infidelity, alienation, and years of hardship and loneliness just so that she can be reunited with the violent, two-timer that abandoned her and their infant son so many years earlier. I’m sure the notion of such a filial wife filled many audience members’ hearts with sympathy and admiration in 1925, yet I found it sad. The cad simply didn’t deserve it, and the film doesn’t really work because of that. One day, someone will give us a film about a seductress who remains a seductress throughout (even if she thinks it’s time to settle down and her power becomes a nuisance) and a ruffian who remains a ruffian to the very end; 1925 Germany just wasn’t such a time. (on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Classics)
*Variete is a silent film.