“The show is over!”
If Ewald Andre (E.A.) Dupont’s Varieté isn’t as well-known as other central features of the German silent cinema (The Last Laugh, Metropolis, Dr. Caligari, Faust, etc.), part of that oversight has to do with Dupont himself. Not that it’s his fault in any way, but rather that his was simply not one of the “big” names. Chalk it up to the auteur theory’s post-war rankings, where the likes of a Lang, Lubitsch, or Murnau overshadowed equally impressive films made by less- established figures. Released in 1925, Varieté certainly had enough in its favor. Produced by the legendary Erich Pommer at the famed Ufa studios, the picture starred one of the most famous actors in the world and had a behind-the-scenes team to rival most any other production in Germany. Based on a 1921 novel by Felix Holländer, which Dupont adapted, Varieté even did solid business in the United States, where it was a popular and critical success. In his seminal 1947 text “From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film,” Siegfried Kracauer cites an American Film article at the time, stating the film, “aroused a ‘white heat of enthusiasm’ among American moviegoers.” The dynamic depiction of everyday life, seen in music halls and cafes, made it “as if one had never before seen these commonplace surroundings.”
Subtitled in the credits, “The tragedy of an acrobat,” Varieté introduces its protagonist as Prisoner 28, soon revealed to be Boss Huller. Played by Emil Jannings (and playfully seen only from the back during this opening sequence), he speaks with the prison director, reflecting on a time when he was with wife and child, managing a second-tier amusement park sideshow. An iris-dissolve and initiating intertitle—“It began in Hamburg…”—prompts the morality tale flashback. Though no longer a successful performer, Huller is nevertheless presented as a man who seems essentially content, especially with his small child (the tot is on the punchline end of the film’s most amusing match-cut, from dripping facet to a leaking crib). There is, then, a glimmer of humble happiness to start, so by what turn of events did this outwardly innocuous man find himself imprisoned? Enter Lya de Putti as Berta-Marie, a young woman so named for the vessel that brought her to Germany. Recently orphaned, the instantly peculiar, yet persuasively demur girl is granted employment by Huller, very much against the wishes of his skeptical wife (Maly Delschaft). Berta-Marie is all meekness and innocence to start, but her flawless porcelain face conceals a potentially devious faculty.
Huller grows restless, so the former trapeze artist joins with Berta-Marie—now dubbed the “new one”—and seeks to regain his theatrical claim. In the first major tragedy of Varieté, the cost for such aspiration is Huller’s stable home life. Having already shown the deviating direction of amorous attention, harshly flaunted in the face of his dejected wife, Huller abandons it all and sets off with the enticing neophyte. There’s a lesson to be learned in this, of course, and before long, this once timid ingénue blossoms into a savvy siren. Aptly conveying what a title card calls a “strange charm,” demonstrated in an exotic dance that smolders the male audience with its enrapturing physiological effect, Berta-Marie also sparks the fires of Huller’s jealously. These flames of resentment intensify with the arrival of Artinelli (Warwick Ward), a music hall entertainer of international prominence. He swiftly usurps Huller’s personal and professional position, partnering with the couple under the self-promotional banner of “The Three Artinellis” and seducing the opportunistic Berta-Marie in the process. Huller comes to the lumbering, vengeful realization that the girl’s charms cut both ways, and now he has lost everything.
Similar to his role in F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh, released the year prior, Jannings’ performance in Varieté is one of great highs and lows, joyously returning to the art form he loves, yet arriving there as a weak, browbeaten subordinate, tortured and mocked (Dupont implies Berta-Marie’s dominance when he has Huller stitching up her stockings like a dutiful hausfrau). Jannings is capable of affectionate softness, particularly with the baby and in the early stages of Huller’s romance with Berta-Marie. But he is also able to indicate the latent cruelty of his character, giving Huller a brutish anger that sporadically blights a generally decent man. Jannings’ performance also foreshadows his similarly tragic turn in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), where his respectable professor falls for Marlene Dietrich’s tempting nightclub singer Lola Lola.
Though she was no Marlene Dietrich, vampish Lya de Putti spins an efficiently seductive web around her own charmed suitors. The Hungarian actress is like an evocative specter, her beguiling presence alluding to a magnetic prowess. Accentuated by the attention of Dupont’s leering gaze, mirroring the lusty looks of the men in the film, most of this influence derives from her provocative sexuality, seen in her tantalizing stage routine (de Putti actually was a dancer) and in her superficial vulnerability, suggested by her circumspect mannerisms and her exposed flesh. Contributing to calls for censorship (and many of the resulting cuts), Dupont does manage to get away with some appreciably risqué staging and editorial insinuation: the back-and-forth cutting of Huller comparing his wife’s physique to the more alluring attributes of Berta-Marie is one obvious example.
Even with the impact of Jannings and de Putti (and Ward is also superbly slimy), the real star of Varieté is the camera. It’s fitting so much of the film would be set in the world of carnivalesque entertainment, from uncanny circus attractions to the swanky Berlin Wintergarten theater, for Dupont and cinematographers Karl Freund and Carl Hoffmann are here to put on a show, and with relentlessly dizzying camera work, they surely do not disappoint. Freund and Hoffmann were legends of Weimar German cinema; together or separately, their indispensable visual ingenuity helped enhance the likes of The Golem (1920), Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922), and Die Nibelungen (1924). Pioneers of the so-called entfesselte kamera, or “unchained camera,” the best of what they had to offer is center-stage in Varieté. The camera swings and twirls, literally flying on a trapeze; it imitates the kinetic bustle of performers waiting in the wings and mimics a character’s skewed point of view, their ecstasy, or their sensory reactions (a dolly in on Ward’s ear as he eavesdrops and begins scheming). The filmmakers employ a range of inspired tricks and gags, aided by miniatures, double exposures, expressive lighting and make up. Even when Dupont favors a more static composition—as in a dazzling firework display during one notable sequence— the imagery is no less striking.
Despite the response noted by Kracauer, an arresting impression the movie still elicits, Varieté steadily faded from the historical radar, partly a result of censorial interference, partly due to the whims of critical fancy. It may not be the most familiar title from the silent era, but E.A. Dupont’s vibrant tour de force remains a brilliant demonstration of cinema’s early exultant potential. It showcases what the form’s greatest artists were able to achieve, whether they received the lasting recognition or not. A new Blu-ray of the film, fabulously restored by Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung and Filmarchiv, Austria and released by Kino Lorber, will hopefully put this overlooked classic back in the spotlight.