"Masterpiece" is a word that oughtn't to be bandied about as much as it is, as when we encounter the real deal, it's hard to find an alternate word.
Asphalt (1929) is an expressionist silent film that occasionally resembles Soviet Socialist Realism while presaging film noir, with surprisingly naturalistic actors. It is certainly a very great film to be so little known to American film fanatics.
Visually stunning, the set design & use of shadow is alone tremendous, to be studied by every would-be filmmaker.
Whether for the staged indoor scenes, or street scenes set amidst art deco architecture, we are wrapped in & rapt of intense atmosphere.
With the traffic & the street of a business district in Berlin as a central image, the camera invesetigates every nook & shop with delight & relish, revealing snippets of the lives of the rich, the poor, the criminal, the victmized.
A flapper, Elsa Kramer (Betty Amann), by clever means steals a diamond from jewelry shop. When suspected, she welcomes the intervention of a street cop, since the jewel is so well disguised & she apt to be cleared at once. Alas her ploy falters, with the officer more clever than she.
Yet due to Elsa's beauty & no other reason, the old jeweler permits himself to be moved by her well-acted claim of desparation.
The shop owner does not wish to press changes. The officer, however, at first seemingly immune to the thief's charms, feels it necessary to investigate further.
She plays on the seemingly coldhearted officer's sympathies as well, but by now is looking more & more the artful femme fatale.
A battle of wills progresses, testing her seductive prowess to the maximum, i na tale at once witty, sensual, & suspenseful.
Officer Holk (Gustav Frohlich) finds himself succumbing to her wiles & lets her off. But she has a gangster boyfriend who is at that same moment in the midst of a major heist in Paris, & will soon be returning to Berlin.
In American films when a law-abiding man goes down this path, it's because femme fatales are evil & good men will fall or tough-guy detectives will have the final victory.
But here, in the horrible encounter with her boyfriend, Holk's actions are truly his own, with some intimation that a "good" man can have inside him rages that surprise even criminals.
The support cast is tremendous, notably Holk's mother & father (Else Heller & Albert Steinruck), whose tragedy over their son is the saddest thing in the tale.
[SPOILER ALERT!] Elsa will ultimately embrace the repurcussions for the officer's failings, taking all blame onto herself. She's a heroine by the end, saving a man who may appreciate it but scarcely deserves it, a case of nobility wasted on the meritless, in a film that really must be regarded a masterpiece of silent cinema. [END SPOILER ALERT]
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