Thursday, October 06, 2011

Fiaker Nr. 13 / Fiacre No. 13

Pika-ajuri n:o 13 (Einspänner Nr. 13 / Colette, ballerina dell’Opera / The Road to Happiness) (Sascha-Filmindustrie AG / Phoebus-Film AG, AT/DE 1926) D: Michael Kertész [Michael Curtiz]; P: Alexander Kolowrat; SC: Alfred Schirokauer, based on the novel Le Fiacre no. 13 (1880) by Xavier de Montépin; DP: Gustav Ucicky, Eduard von Borsody; AD: Paul Leni; cast: Lily Damita (Lilian), Jack Trevor (François Tapin), Paul Biensfeld (Jacques Carotin), Walter Rilla (Lucien Rebout), Max Gülstorff (Antiquarian), Albert Paulig (Ballet-master), Karl Ebert (Henry Liradon), Hermann Picha (Monsieur Coco), Valeska Stock (Madame Coco), Sophie Pagay (Linotte); filmed: 11-12.1925; première: 18.1.1926 (Wien); released: 5.2.1926 (Wien); 35 mm, 2400 m, 104’ (20 fps); from: EYE Film Institute Netherlands, Amsterdam. Nederlandse tussentitels. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, with e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano: Stephen Horne, 6 Oct 2011.

Miguel A. Fidalgo (GCM Catalogue): "Kolowrat’s pressing need to raise capital for new productions led him to neighbouring Germany, where the economy, though not yet fully stable, had improved markedly over the past two years. Phoebus-Film AG was a small producer and distributor that was part of the huge Ufa (Universal Film Aktiengesellschaft) complex, the giant entity created by the German government in November 1917 to co-ordinate production of propaganda and public service films. An agreement with Phoebus ensured for Sascha financial support for new films, a greater presence in the German market, and substantial savings due both to the lower costs of labour and material in Berlin, and the absence of import tax on raw film."

"Kertesz’s new project with Damita, lauded by the press as “the favorite of audiences and critics”, was Fiaker Nr. 13 (Austrian working title, Einspänner Nr.13). This was an adaptation of an 1880 serial novel, Le Fiacre no. 13, by the French writer Xavier de Montépin, which had already been filmed by Alberto Capozzi for Ambrosio in 1917. The story contained all the out-dated period ingredients: revenge, changes of identity, abandoned children, claims to nobility, with the son of a duke as the protagonist. The chosen screenwriter, the German Alfred Schirokauer, had proven experience and had himself directed. Following Kertész’s suggestions he changed the plot to melodrama style and switched the sex of the main character to introduce a convenient love triangle. The story of the film now focuses on Lilian, the lost heiress of a millionaire, found as a baby by a Parisian cabdriver, raised as his own daughter, and now the prospective victim of a clever con artist who has discovered the secret of her true origins. Kertész began filming in early November 1925, and completed shooting in two months, with locations in Paris, and interiors both in Paris and the Berlin EFA studios, rented by Phoebus. Damita was surrounded by a new group of male faces, with the well-known German actors Paul Biensfeld, Karl Ebert, and Walter Rilla, and the British-born Jack Trevor (1890-1976), whose film career faded with the coming of sound because of his British accent, but who was coerced by the Nazis into acting in anti-British films during the Second World War. A particularly positive element was the design by Paul Leni, creator of the magnificent Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924), and a sympathetic artistic temperament for Kertész, sharing his intense belief in the dramatic expression of the image. This Paris has little in common with that of Das Spielzeug von Paris. Decidedly Germanic in design and visual aspect, there is little of the light and joy seen in the earlier film, and its characters are framed in a more visually dramatic environment. Kertész demonstrates his purpose dramatically in the very first sequence, showing the death of the protagonist’s mother in the midst of a dirty, contorted set, full of shadows and with the straight lines of the floor extended towards the viewer to provide a compelling effect of perspective. Leni’s rich and creative designs contribute much, whether giving dimensionality (the simple but effective set of the ballet school) or distinguishing social classes and styles of life (the exterior of the cabdriver’s house, with its sloping, mottled walls, contrasted with the straight lines and symmetry of the millionaire’s house). In terms of narrative resources, Kertész triumphs in the fine balance between the interior rhythm of each sequence and the overall rhythm of the entire film. Fiaker Nr. 13 was released at the beginning of February 1926. Although only four years had passed since Frau Dorothys Bekenntnis (1921), whose story bore some similarity with it, both Kertész as well as movies and society had changed. The melodramatic qualities that imbued the earlier film appear here shaded by a veil of realism and change: perhaps, just as for the old coachman, reflecting the changing times. While shooting in Paris, Kertész met Harry Warner, the eldest of the Warner brothers and chairman of the company that bore their name, who was then in Europe recruiting new talent. The meeting would bear fruit a few months later, when Mihály Kertész became, forever, Michael Curtiz. But that is another story." – Miguel A. Fidalgo

AA: The plot is clichéd, but the redeeming features include Lily Damita's vivid and humoristic performance and dance numbers (ballet school pranks, Peter Pan / Robin Hood gear, Black Charleston Bottom) and Paul Leni's excellent art design which Michael Curtiz knows to use very well, in a way that is similar to his collaboration with Anton Grot at Warner Bros. There is an impressive brief montage of the casino where Lucien loses all of his loot. In the intertitles there are appearances of the song lyrics "Das war in Schöneberg in Monat Mai / Ein kleines Mädelchen war auch dabei" (famously in the repertory of Hildegarde Knef and Marlene Dietrich). The print is incomplete, and there are some jarring cuts in the beginning, but they don't harm much. The quality of the image is predominantly beautiful, and the print does justice to the excellence of the cinematography.

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