Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Hintertreppe / Backstairs

Leopold Jessner & Paul Leni: Hintertreppe / Backstairs (DE 1921), SC: Carl Mayer, starring Henny Porten. Screenshot from a beautifully toned print from IMDb.

(Henny Porten-Film / Gloria-Film, DE 1921) D: Leopold Jessner, Paul Leni; SC: Carl Mayer; DP: Karl Hasselmann, Willy Hameister; AD: Paul Leni; cast: Henny Porten (the housemaid), Fritz Kortner (the postman), Wilhelm Dieterle (the lover); P: Henny Porten, Hanns Lippmann; P mgr: Wilhelm von Kaufmann; filmed: 1.8.- 10.1921 (Ufa-Messter-Atelier, Berlin-Tempelhof); censorship date: 7.11.1921 (B.4628), 28.11.1921 (B.4281); première: 11.12.1921, U.T. Kurfürstendamm, Berlin; orig.: 1378 m; 35 mm, 1109 m, 73’ (16 fps); from: Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau- Stiftung, Wiesbaden. English intertitles. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, with e-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: Antonio Coppola, 5 Oct 2011.

Kristin Thompson (GCM Catalogue): "Hintertreppe belongs to that tiny genre, the Kammerspiel films of the Weimar cinema. The other significant Kammerspiel films are Scherben, Sylvester, Der letzte Mann, and perhaps Carl Dreyer’s 1924 film Michael. Hintertreppe was the first, and it deals with the unpromising subject of a Maid (played by the major German star Henny Porten) waiting for letters from her Lover (Wilhelm Dieterle, who later went on to direct in Hollywood). Much of the action concerns the Maid’s housework and the local Postman’s daily visits. Kammerspiel means “chamber play,” a piece produced on a small stage with the audience intimately close to the action. The format originated under Max Reinhardt, whose collaborator Heintz Herald said: “If an actor needs to lift his whole arm at the Grosses Schauspielhaus, he need only move his hand at the Deutsches Theater; and at the Kammerspiele it’s enough if he moves a finger.” Accordingly, Hintertreppe is a film of nuances."

"An impressive lineup of talent created Hintertreppe. Its script was written by Carl Mayer, who, apart from being the co-scenarist of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, almost singlehandedly brought Kammerspiel from theater to cinema by writing Scherben, Sylvester, and Der letzte Mann. Paul Leni, who later directed the Expressionist Wachsfigurenkabinett, designed the sets. And it was directed by Leopold Jessner, one of the great Expressionist stage directors."

"Jessner’s only other film was the flamboyantly Expressionist Erdgeist (1923), with Asta Nielsen in the main role. Erdgeist deserves more attention, but unfortunately it is one of the rarest of the major Expressionist films."

"Originally Hintertreppe had no intertitles, because Mayer championed purely visual cinematic storytelling. Even the letters around which the plot revolves were not shown as inserts. Unfortunately most modern prints contain expository titles and inserts of the letters. But those who saw the original version apparently found its subtle plot too difficult to follow through images alone. Siegfried Kracauer claims that the Postman “out of morbid love for the girl intercepts these letters.” Lotte Eisner interprets the plot as the story of the Maid “whose letters from her lover are intercepted by the postman, himself in love with her.”"

"In fact, the plot is more complex. After one scene showing the Lover and the Maid meeting in the courtyard at night, he mysteriously disappears. She receives no letters from him. In love with her himself and observing her distress, the Postman writes a letter purporting to come from the Lover. Out of gratitude, she visits the Postman and finds him forging another letter. She leaves, upset, but soon realizes that in writing the letters, the Postman has declared his own love for her. A tentative romance begins. Just as the Maid arrives for a supper lovingly prepared by the Postman, the Lover returns. At this point the prints I have seen are choppy, but each seems to berate the other for not having written. In a twist ending, it apparently turns out that the Postman has not only forged letters from the Lover but also intercepted the letters from the Maid to him. A complicated story for a film to tell without titles, and one whose comprehensibility depends on our close attention to gestures."

"Porten, though accused by Eisner of being “far too fat” for her role, is completely convincing as the maid, and her subtle performance is worth watching closely. Her opening scene, where she “hits the snooze button” on her alarm clock, swiftly sets her up as a cheerful working girl. In the scene after she discovers that the letter purportedly from her Lover was actually written by the Postman, she returns to the kitchen of the apartment where she works, distraught. Porten skillfully conveys the character’s frustration at the ringing of the service bell and then her moment of steeling herself to go out with an empty tray to clear the glasses from a party."

"The style of the film, as Eisner noted, contrasts the bourgeois, realistic ambience of the apartment of the Maid’s employer with a more stylized world of the lower classes. A quick shot near the beginning shows a doorbell-pull labeled Rechnungsrat, designating a senior government auditor. Much of the action consists of the Maid and Postman trudging up and down the “backstairs” of the title, a servants’ stairway rendered in Expressionist style. The courtyard to which the stairs lead is also Expressionistic, a forerunner to the courtyard in Der letzte Mann. Throughout the 1920s, Expressionism was often called upon to render working-class apartment buildings and slums. Perhaps the most historically significant aspect of the film, though, is Fritz Kortner’s performance as the Postman. Kortner was one of the great Expressionist stage and screen actors; today he is best known from this film, as well as his performance as the husband in Arthur Robison’s Schatten (Warning Shadows) and as Dr. Ludwig Schön in G.W. Pabst’s Die Büchse der Pandora. While Porten acts naturalistically and briskly, Kortner moves slowly, his emotions displayed via wideeyed grimaces and the way one arm curls in upon itself. In the scene where the Maid frantically searches the Postman’s bag for a hopedfor letter, Kortner turns his face away from the camera while she comes slightly forward to register despair. Eventually she turns and leans against the door frame so that the two slumping bodies echo each other in true Expressionist style. Emil Jannings was credited for “acting with his back” in Varieté four years later, but Kortner had already used the technique here, and to greater effect." Kristin Thompson

AA: A chamber movie. I checked just the visual quality of this masterpiece which I have seen a few times before. It looks nice, slightly duped, and probably as good as it gets. People laughed at the long added English explanatory introduction (from the 1920s or the 1930s) which has the effect of making the whole film feel ridiculous. The German chamber movie genre soon revolutionized world cinema, including Hollywood, especially via The Last Laugh by F.W. Murnau.

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