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Noir-vember 2013: Asphalt

Posted by martinteller on November 17, 2013

“Have pity on me — I swear, it was the first time!”

Officer Albert Holk (Albert Steinrück) is an upstanding citizen, living in a modest flat with his father (Gustav Frölich) — also a policeman — and his mother (Else Heller).  One night on his rounds, he’s summoned to a jewelry store where Else Kramer (Betty Amann) has been caught stealing a diamond.  The shopkeeper shows mercy and wants to let her go, but Albert is compelled to do his duty.  As he escorts her to the station, she persuades him to let her stop and retrieve her papers from the apartment she says she’ll be evicted from tomorrow.  A night of passion unfolds, and Holk and Else struggle with how to make a relationship between a cop and a thief work out.  And then there’s the shady character (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) from Else’s past.

I am fairly rigid in my definition of true noir, and a 1929 German film doesn’t fit that definition.  However, it is certainly proto-noir.  It’s one of the last pictures of German Expressionism, a movement that has an undeniable influence on noir visuals.  The plot is motivated by a crime, there is a sense of big city immorality invading the quiet home life (in the opening sequence, Vertovian kaleidoscopic images of the busy streets of Berlin swirl around the tranquil Holk household), Amann is a femme fatale-ish character, and Steinrück transforms from a noble, buttoned-down figure to one who is shabby, sweaty and desperate.

Amann — sporting a flapper hairdo that perhaps intentionally reminds one of Louise Brooks — has a commanding presence on the screen.  Her seduction of Steinrück is highly charged with raging sexuality, as she squirms and slithers against his body.  The next scene is beautifully edited to suggest the two in bed together, until it is revealed that they are apart, reflecting on the lusty activities of the previous evening.  Steinrück’s transformation is swift but not too swift to be believable, and I think he comports himself well in a somewhat limited role.

It generally takes a lot for a silent film to really resonate with me, and despite the excellent camerawork (especially some exceptional POV shots) and mostly strong lead performances, this one didn’t quite hit the mark.  Perhaps the story is just too simplistic.  The dreadful new score by Karl-Ernst Sasse didn’t help either… this might be one that’s better to watch as a true silent.  But on the whole there’s a lot to enjoy here, including a lovely ending that dodges easy sentimentality.  Rating: Good (78)


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