Thursday, October 11, 2012

Jenseits der Strasse / Harbour Drift

[Dall’altra parte della strada] (Prometheus-Film Verleih- und Vertriebs-GmbH, Berlin, DE 1929). D: Leo Mittler, [Albrecht Viktor Blum (n.c.)]; P: Willi Münzenberg; SC: Jan Fethke; DP: Friedl Behn-Grund; AD: Robert Scharfenberg, Carl P. Haacker; FX: Eugen Schüfftan (trick process), Fritz Maurischat (design for Schüfftan process); artistic adviser: Willy Döll; ass D: Julius Oblatt; P mgr: Dimitri Roschanski; C: Lissy Arna (prostitute), Paul Rehkopf (beggar), Fritz Genschow (unemployed man), Siegfried Arno (dealer in stolen goods), Friedrich Gnaß (sailor), Margarete Kupfer (proprietress), Dietrich Henckels; filmed: 6-7.1929 (Jofa-Ateliers Berlin-Johannisthal; Rotterdam; Berlin); censorship date: 20.09.1929, B.23519, Jv. (2015 m; 2028 m before censorship); première: 10.10.1929, Berlin (Atrium); 35 mm, 1939 m, 93' (18 fps); print source: Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, Berlin. Deutsche Zwischentitel.

Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone (Rediscoveries), e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano: Stephen Horne, 11 Oct 2012.

Anton Kaes: "Uncommonly prescient about the social consequences of economic distress, Leo Mittler’s Jenseits der Straße (literally, “Beyond the Street”) opened in Berlin on 10 October 1929, just two weeks before the Wall Street stock market crash. The film’s English title, Harbor Drift, is well chosen because it retains a sense of the film’s working title, Bettler, Dirne und Matrose (Beggar, Prostitute, and Sailor). Set in a German harbor town, the story deals with human drift, a harsh metaphor for what Marx and Engels called the lumpenproletariat (ragor rogue-proletariat), whose members – beggars, prostitutes, crooks, and “other flotsam of society” – lack class consciousness and are therefore lost to organized struggle. Although Harbor Drift follows Weimar’s popular “street film” genre (as exemplified by The Street or Asphalt), it focuses less on the dangerous lure of the street than on the crushing poverty of the lowest layers of the proletariat. In contrast to Phil Jutzi’s Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness, which premiered two months later, Harbor Drift does not hold out the possibility of a proletarian-revolutionary alternative; its poverty-stricken characters are shown to live outside the political sphere."

"This absence of missionary zeal is curious, because the film was produced by Willi Münzenberg’s Prometheus-Film, whose express purpose was to promote progressive proletarian cinema. Founded in 1925, the company focused on importing revolutionary Soviet films (e.g., Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Pudovkin’s Mother, both 1926), but also produced a few feature films on its own, such as Harbor Drift, Mother Krause, and Kuhle Wampe (Dudow, 1932). In the end, Münzenberg’s alternative proletarian vision could not compete with Hugenberg’s plush and powerful Ufa empire. The budget for Mother Krause had to be cut because of Harbor Drift’s production overruns, and in 1932, in the midst of the production of Kuhle Wampe, Prometheus-Film declared bankruptcy."

"Harbor Drift’s narrative centers around the quest for a glitzy pearl necklace that symbolizes a different kind of life – one of money, luxury, and extravagance. The story begins when a beggar finds the necklace and is seen stealing it by a prostitute. She demands that her unemployed friend steal it back from the beggar. The sordid tale of poverty and greed ends when the beggar is chased and accidentally drowns, still clutching his pearl necklace – a worthless imitation, as it turns out. The film refrains from psychologizing its characters, whom it uses as types without names (“the beggar”, “the prostitute”, etc.). Harbor Drift also includes shots of industrial landscapes to place the individuals in their social milieu and to suggest a larger story about capitalism’s imposing, albeit corrosive, power. Some of this footage, in the style of Dziga Vertov’s constructivism, is attributed to Albrecht Viktor Blum, who had been designated to direct Harbor Drift before he was replaced (because of illness) by Leo Mittler, an unknown Austrian theatre director. Blum had been the center of controversy when his 1928 compilation film Im Schatten der Maschinen (In the Shadow of Machines) incorporated whole passages from Vertov’s 1928 documentary The Eleventh Year. (Ironically, during a visit to Berlin in 1929, it was Vertov who had to defend himself against charges of plagiarism.)"

"The crime story involving the beggar and prostitute is embedded in a framing story that also features the prostitute. Sitting by herself at an outdoor café, silently soliciting, she is introduced through point-of-view close-ups of her knee-high, tightly laced, high-heeled boots. Nearby, a corpulent bourgeois with a cigar – a caricature straight from the pages of George Grosz – ogles her fetishized legs while pretending to read the paper. Such scenes of sexual commerce were part of urban life in Weimar Germany, where open prostitution was common. A new Law for Combating Venereal Diseases in 1927 had decriminalized prostitution, and it is reported that Berlin had no fewer than 100,000 streetwalkers. As if to tease the viewer, the film draws away from the encounter between prostitute and potential customer, and instead tracks in on the newspaper he holds up to shield his lecherous glances. After scanning many pages and pictures, the camera comes to rest on a brief news item, a mysterious story about an old man who was pulled out of the water, obviously the victim of a crime. The first intertitle had asked: “Millions of newspaper copies every day. Hundreds of thousands of notices … every day. Hundreds of thousands fates … Who gives these any thought between coffee and cigars?” The film answers the question by cutting from the newspaper to a bustling street, the home of the old man, a beggar, whose death occasioned the report. Investigating his fate, the film presents the man’s life as a story that is already past. The end is revealed at the beginning – a narrative technique that reinforces a sense of immutability and predetermination, but also a rhetorical device that encourages a sociological, critical-analytical spectatorial position."

"At the conclusion of the extended flashback, the film returns to the street scene from the beginning as if no time had passed. The man with the cigar puts the newspaper away and finally makes eye contact with the prostitute (whom we recognize from the crime story). Both leave the café without exchanging a word. Shot from an angle that makes her slim body disappear behind the man’s grotesquely protruding abdomen, the film ends with the prostitute and her customer simply walking out of the frame. One final shot shows trash drifting down an empty street. No suicide or melodramatic redemption: the film refuses closure. The prostitute remains a prostitute, and life goes on. The film coolly registers the fact that the forces of the capitalist market are stronger than any desires for change because the desires are themselves defined by capitalism. The critic of the Communist paper Die Rote Fahne rightfully wondered why the film didn’t provide a glimmer of hope, at least for the unemployed worker, to find solidarity in organized class struggle. Harbor Drift, in contrast to Mother Krause, shows no marching towards a new future."

"The most remarkable feature of this film is Friedl Behn-Grund’s innovative camerawork, which appropriates experimental and abstract film techniques and invents new expressionist ways to manipulate light. Dark shadows punctured by splotches of light and eerily lit wind-swept trees set against a black background create a nightmarish atmosphere of fear and premonition. An often unsteady camera seeks unusual angles to display distorted perspectives, and out-of-focus close-ups conjure up a sense of panic. (Stylistically, Harbor Drift has much in common with Ernö Metzner’s experimental short Polizeibericht Überfall, which appeared in April 1929.) The film’s rapid-cut montage sequences follow the Russian School of editing that had become customary for all proletarian filmmaking since Battleship Potemkin’s Berlin premiere in 1926. Harbor Drift uses sex and crime to draw attention to the human cost of capitalism, but in line with the tenets of New Objectivity, it rejects any romantic hope for a social revolution. Its disillusioned and hardened look at the world foreshadows the dark and gritty universe of 1940s American film noir, which unsurprisingly became a haven for Weimar cinema in exile." – ANTON KAES

AA: This movie is much stronger than I remembered, having seen it only once before, in a 16 mm print at Goethe-Institut in Tampere in 1974. Made during the most golden years of the silent era, it is a masterpiece of urbanity, its account of the stream of consciousness no less impressive than what Joyce and Woolf were doing. The bustling streets and the reflections of water in a North German harbour town are two contrasting visual worlds in the story of the unemployed guy, the streetwalking woman and the professional beggar who lives in a boat permanently anchored by the waterfront. There is the harsh reality on the one hand, and the dreams and the illusions on the other hand. Even movie illusions are mentioned, but "the movie is just more of the same". The central illusory object is the necklace, believed precious, actually worthless. Love may be another illusion, crushed mercilessly in the brutal circumstances by the gangster boss who roughs up the woman and throws her birdcage and flower bouquet on the floor. Political illusions are ignored. Things to remember: - strong blitz montages - the dazzle of the necklace momentarily expressed in a close-up out of focus - the women of the night: "öd und einsam liegt die nächtliche Strasse" - yes, Jenseits der Strasse does belong to the predecessors of film noir - the elegant design of the intertitles - the runs in her stocking, her tired feet, removing her make-up, "der arme Mensch zum Vorschein" - the counter-image to the squalor: the girl with the nice smile facing the boat-home - the other counter-image: the single night of bliss between the man and the woman - the montage of the lonely wandering, "the feet that walk" emphasized by Kracauer - the wild camera angles in the climactic fight and the fire of the boat-home - the empty space on the street where the beggar used to sit. Having seen A.W. Sandberg's Dickens adaptation Our Mutual Friend the night before I was struck by similarities in certain of the characters (Gaffer Hexam and the beggar) and themes (the waterfront and its vultures). A brilliant print.

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