Variete (1925) I have a backlog of movies I wanted to make short commentaries on, and while I would usually prefer to combine them in one big post, the low number of posts I have put up the last few months and the current scarcity of time I have for writing here have persuaded me to try to do a series of White Castle Hamburger-sized mini-posts to get through these movies.
It is only within the last few years that I have begun to watch silent movies in any appreciable manner. As anyone's would, my investigations so far have revealed that greatness in this era has been largely designated as residing in three major scenes: the great comedians of Hollywood, Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, et al, plus D.W. Griffith, of whose work I have not seen anything yet, but who must be a truly awesome director, as he is the only American I am aware of whose greatness is insisted upon even though he was an avowed and virulent racist (seriously--I'm not sure it is even safe yet to put in a good word for Jefferson in respectable company, and his racism seems to have somewhat more of the conflicted rather than virulent strain); the Soviet avant garde, flush with the tumult of revolution and outrageous ideology combined with a high art tradition; and the brilliant nihilistic productions of Weimar Germany, in the very dark heart of the old shattered Europe, known by the name of Expressionism, which is the camp out of which Variete emerged.
This is not the easiest film in the world to find a copy of. I was able to buy a DVD for $14.99 from a guy in Phoenix, Arizona. The design, packaging and presentation of this DVD is a slight cut above the disks people burn on their home computers, but it was definitely not put out by any kind of high level media company either. The quality of the movie on it seems to be pretty good as far as I can tell. Variete was directed by Evald Andre Dupont, a native of Saxony, and stars Emil Jannings (born Switzerland) and Lya De Putti, a Hungarian born in what is now part of Slovakia. She died at age 32 and was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, where James Baldwin and Judy Garland, among dozens of other celebrities, were also laid to rest. I am not familiar with any of these people outside of this film, but they were important figures in the German theater and arts of their time, which was a very advanced and serious culture that I take an interest in whenever I run across it as a kind of ultimate contrast to my own life.
Like so many classic movies, from Les Enfants du Paradis to La Strada to numerous of Ingmar Bergman's movies to a hundred others I can't think of off hand, the story is set among a troupe of vagabond performers, in this instance circus acrobats, a kind of life that is presented as hard, perilous and a great strain on any kind of stability on one's emotional life, but that also has a certain romantic appeal to bourgeois intellectuals, as the innate physicality suggests both heightened sensuality and authenticity, which are the two components of an interesting life most elusive to bourgeois intellectuals. I love these kinds of movies myself, as well as certain kinds of real theaters and circuses. In the summer in New Hampshire and Vermont there are a number of very small time circus troupes that either travel around from fairground to fairground or pitch a tent at one of the minor league amusement parks. These circuses are probably rather melancholy and pitiful affairs, but there is also a low tech human immediacy about them that makes them a refuge from a lot of the clinical harshness and impersonality of life that oppresses me. Most of the performers in these circuses seem to be Russian, the women attractive but hard-looking when you get closer to them. Some of the acrobats are Hispanic. But I am getting away from the movie again.
Like the best parts of life itself the movie is a tale of desire, jealousy, betrayal, and so forth. The scenes involving the acrobatics as well as the fading in and out between two contiguous scenes were innovative at the time and are celebrated for that, as is explained here. Unlike the vast majority of movies, the camera actually operates like an eye with a highly functioning and interesting brain attached to it. The effect of this is that human life, and its places and objects and rooms, when seen through the filter of this intelligence, appears to be possessed of such weight and meaning as it ordinarily lacks, which is of course the minimum aim I would suspect of all artistic creation. Here is one of the places where success is attained in this, and it is also an example of why I think it is impossible at bottom for any genuine piece of art to be nihilistic. In this case the camera by what it seeks and finds betrays any effect of meaninglessness that one might be susceptible to. It finds meaning everywhere.