Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Die Strasse / The Street (premiere of the 2023 Munich restoration) (centenary screening)

Karl Grune: Die Straße / The Street (DE 1923) with Eugen Klöpfer (Kleinbürger) and Aud Egede Nissen (Dirne). Szenenbild: Ludwig Meidner. Photo: La Cinémathèque française, Paris. From: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, 2023.

Die Strasse : Der Film einer Nacht
La strada
    DE 1923  regia/dir, scen: Karl Grune. photog: Karl Hasselmann. scg/des: Karl Görge, Ludwig Meidner.
    cast: Eugen Klöpfer (Kleinbürger), Lucie Höflich (Ehefrau), Leonhard Haskel (Herr aus der Provinz), Aud Egede Nissen (Dirne), Hans Trautner (Bursche), Max Schreck (Blinder), Anton Edthofer (Zuhälter), Sascha (Kind).
    prod: Karl Grune, per/for Sternfilm GmbH. dist: Ufa. première: 29.11.1923 (U.T. Kurfürstendamm, Berlin). copia/copy: DCP, 79', col. (da/from 35 mm, imbibito/tinted, orig. l: 2,057 m, 24 fps); did./titles: GER. fonte/source: Filmmuseum München.
    Unreleased in Finland.
    Grand piano: Günter Buchwald.
    Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM): The Canon Revisited, 11 Oct 2023

Stefan Drössler (GCM 2023): “ Today Karl Grune (1890-1962) is one of the lesser-known directors of German silent film, but he was once placed by contemporary critics in the forefront of European film artists. He owes this above all to Die Straße, which is considered his most important work. Siegfried Kracauer published two reviews upon its Frankfurt premiere, and repeatedly cited it in his writings as a key film, which founded the “street film” genre. In his book From Caligari to Hitler, he defines the “street film” as an allegory for German society’s slide into dictatorship: “The leading character breaks away from the social conventions to grasp life, but the conventions prove stronger than the rebel and force him into either submission or suicide.” Contemporary foreign critics praised the film’s technical qualities. In Kinematograph Weekly (17.1.1924), Lionel Collier called Die Straße “a milestone in the progress of screen technology and art”. Grune was considered progressive and innovative because he knew how to use the peculiarities of film. He explained his ideas in his essay “Der Film ist Bewegungskunst” [Film Is the Art of Movement] (Dortmunder Zeitung , Nr. 570, 5.12.1924): “What the stage expresses through words, the film must make clear through movement alone; it must try to eliminate the word as a means of communication. The image cannot be an empty illustration of the intertitles, it must be able to make the action process intelligible through its own arrangement. As music is a harmony of tones, so film should be a symphony of light, and just as music can be enjoyed even by the layman, so film should be enjoyed even by the spectator who does not understand the plot.” “

“ In fact, the story of a little bank clerk who allows himself to be drawn into the seductive hustle and bustle of the city’s nightlife by the shadows cast through the window onto the ceiling of his apartment provides the framework for a parallel panorama of nameless protagonists, identified in the opening credits only as “The Gentleman from the Provinces”, “The Girl”, “The Fellow”, “The Blind Man”, or “The Child”. The actors use exaggerated gestures that make explanatory titles unnecessary. The few intertitles contain dialogue lines that are actually superfluous, and seem almost ironic in their simplicity. “

“ Just as stylized as the acting are the film’s decor and buildings, made entirely in the studio. Karl Görge (1872- 1933) constructed them in reduced perspective. An article in the newspaper B.Z. am Mittag (15.7.1923) described the three-dimensional models: “The road was built on the E.F.A. site in Steglitz, 75 metres long. Of course, it should give the viewer the impression of a much longer street. It begins at the front with a skyscraper 26 metres high (with a lighted café, ballroom, etc.), and then shrinks in height and width to very small three-dimensional house models, creating the illusion of considerable distance through their differences in size. This mathematical, very precisely calculated technique is again a completely new step in German film.” The sets were designed by the painter Ludwig Meidner (1884-1966), famous for expressive portraits and apocalyptic city visions. In his essay “Anleitung zum Malen von Großstadtbildern” [An Introduction to Painting Big Cities] in: Kunst und Künstler, XII, 1914, Meidner wrote: “A street does not consist of tonal values, but is a bombardment of hissing rows of windows, whizzing beams of light among vehicles of all kinds, and thousands of bouncing balls, fragments of people, billboards, and booming, shapeless masses of colour.” Cinematographer Karl Hasselmann (1883-1966) tried to visualize the chaos to which the petty bourgeois of the framing story feels exposed, using multiple exposures and image rotations, helping to realize the vision that Karl Grune emphasized in interviews: “I first see the milieu and then approach the dramatic motif. Developing my new film Die Straße, I saw – yes, I saw – at first only the optical noise of a cosmopolitan street, its gleaming, glittering, its fever.” (Karl Grune: “Film, nicht Literatur!” [Film, not Literature!], Der Filmbote, Nr. 44, 3.11.1923) ”

“ Another innovation used to promote the film was the omission of intermissions. “The wordless, non-stop film. A very successful experiment, if not completely satisfactory,” wrote the critic of the trade journal Der Film (Nr. 48, 1.12.1923). Karl Grune was determined to break away from literary drama: “In my new film Die Straße, I have now tried to manage without Act divisions. From the outset, the plot is structured with complete temporal and spatial closure that is not ruptured. Mind you, I don’t want to elevate the film without Act divisions into an artistic principle. It seems to me that, given the assumptions of the manuscript, the progress we must strive for to avoid the danger of rigid form lies in uninterrupted action, to strengthen the unity of the plot.” (Karl Grune: “Ohne Akte,” B.Z. am Mittag , Nr. 148, 30.3.1923) Unfortunately, it is not known how this was technically achieved in cinemas with only one projector, which used the breaks between Acts to change reels. Contemporary critics were very skeptical, and could not imagine non-stop screenings of longer length. Otto Ernst Hesse wrote in Der Kinematograph (Nr. 877, 9.12.1923): “In the theatre of words, half an hour, at most three-quarters of an hour, is considered the maximum attention span one can expect from an audience. Rapid tempo in film cannot increase this maximum, but at most only reduce it, since within a certain period of time significantly more numerous and more intense emotions are triggered in the viewer than in the theatre of words.” “

“ Just a few weeks after the film’s Berlin premiere on November 29, 1923, it was already released in London and Paris. From the outset, the production had been designed with international distribution in mind; at the time of accelerating German inflation, foreign sales against hard currencies were a profitable business. The original multi-colour poster for the film’s German premiere designed by illustrator and caricaturist Erich Godal (1899-1969) featured the title in four languages: Die Straße, The Street, La Rue, La Strada. The only insert in the film, a cheque held in the hands of the protagonist, is written in English. This internationality was by no means regarded positively by all the critics. “M.J.” of the Vossische Zeitung (Nr. 568, 1.12.1923) wrote: “It is depressing that this wealth of German ability has to be smuggled in abroad, so to speak, down the backstairs. No inscription on the street signs is dared, the policemen, cleanshaven, with foreign caps, deny their fatherland, just so no spectator on the Hudson or Thames turns up their noses. It certainly wasn’t pretty when Germany got carried away, but it’s embarrassing to see it duck.” “

“ Despite the film’s universal design, it was altered in foreign export and distribution. New titles were introduced, storylines shortened, or intertitles omitted entirely because they were not essential to understand the plot. In 1947 the Museum of Modern Art produced a dupe negative from a slightly abridged nitrate copy of an English version, and the State Film Archive of the GDR produced a dupe negative with recreated German intertitles in the 1970s. This digital reconstruction by the Filmmuseum München draws on fragments of two Russian nitrate copies, one of them still showing traces of the original tints. Missing parts were supplemented by scenes from a duplicate negative provided by the Bundesarchiv. The titles were reconstructed from the German censorship card, dated 10 October 1923. “ Stefan Drössler

AA: It was a great pleasure to revisit Die Strasse in this refined 2023 Munich restoration. I had not seen the film since my viewings in 1985 (on video) and 1987 when we screened a 35 mm print from the Staatliches Filmarchiv der DDR. I then also translated Die Strasse into Finnish. At 2041 m, the print was practically complete, but the visual quality was not brilliant. Die Strasse was one of the Weimar masterpieces that became hard to access during the Third Reich and after.

In 1987, my colleague Matti Salo, the Finnish expert of film noir, was eagerly looking forward to seeing Die Strasse at last, and already the opening sequence was stunning from his viewpoint. The husband is idling on the sofa in the living room when night falls and street lights are lit. A shadow play emerges on the living room ceiling: oblong, elongated shadows of people on the street swarming by. As if hypnotized, like a sleepwalker, the man gets up, views the phantasmagoria from his window, goes out and joins the life on the street. The full title of the movie is Die Strasse : Der Film einer Nacht, meaning: The Street : the Film of One Night. It is a night play.

The screen idea was by Carl Mayer, whose subsequent screenplay, Sylvester, premiered just over a month later with similar insights. The paradox is that such street films, although set in exteriors, turned instead into scenes of Innerlichkeit, interiority. The Kammerspiel moves outdoors. They are dream plays, and this is the inspiration that continued after Weimar in the French cinema of the 1930s, and after the German occupation, in Hollywood as film noir.

A Hollywood film with particular affinities with Die Strasse is The Woman in the Window (US 1944), directed by Fritz Lang, with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett in roles similar to the ones played by Eugen Klöpfer and Aud Egede Nissen in Grune's film, and Dan Duryea in the Anton Edthofer role as the criminal. The Klöpfer character also admires images of women in the window, but they are not of Aud Egede Nissen. 

A French counterpart would of course be La Chienne (FR 1931) directed by Jean Renoir and starring Michel Simon, Janie Marèse and Georges Flamant in similar roles, remade by Fritz Lang like by Wiederholungszwang, as a recurrent nightmare, as Scarlet Street (US 1945), casting again the durable triumvirate Edward G. Robinson - Joan Bennett - Dan Duryea. A painting in a window figures centrally again.

Let's remember in 1930s French cinema even titles such as La Nuit du carrefour, Dans les rues and La Rue sans nom.

Günter Buchwald at the piano attacked the film furiously, with time for inserts of "All of Me", Mozart's "Üb' immer Treu und Redlichkeit" calling forth associations with The Blue Angel, Brahms's "Wiegenlied" for the sleeping baby and "Ain't She Sweet".

In From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer gave an inspired resume of many visual innovations of Die Strasse, such as the hypnotic illuminated eyes on the optician's billboard or the superimposition of a death's head on the streetwalker. The nocturnal odyssey is a journey through illusions, conveyed in purely visual terms. Thanks to the Munich restoration, we can again experience the luminous, "phosphoric"  (Kracauer) glow of Die Strasse.

PS 3 Dec 2023. Der Strassenfilm and the road movie are different.

In the Strassenfilm the city is a locus of danger / chaos / turmoil / sex / crime / temptation / the instincts / the unconscious. It is an oneiric vision, resembling a nightmare.

The road movie is existentialist. It belongs to the Homeric lineage of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The road movie is an odyssey, an adventure, a journey into the unknown.

In Telluride this year, Werner Herzog stated that Perfect Days by Wim Wenders is "a road movie into the soul of one man. The soul is revealed in solitude". The road movie can be a journey of self-discovery (Viaggio in Italia, La strada, Smultronstället).

Indeed, in the road movie, landscape may turn into soulscape, but with an extroverted approach. The subject discovers the world, The road movie is not an inner journey in the sense a dream play like the Strassenfilm.

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