Wednesday 22 February 2023

Earth Spirit (1923)

Director: Leopold Jessner
Writer: Carl Mayer, based on the play by Franz Wedekind
Stars: Asta Nielsen and Albert Bassermann

Here’s another foreign language film from 1923 that deserves a proper release a century on, not least because I found myself watching once more in far from optimal conditions.

It’s a German film based on a German play, so it’s not surprising to see German intertitles, but the copy I have has the German translated into Dutch and, more than once on intertitles that were actually letters, I popped that Dutch translation from the German over into Google Translate to get better depth.

Given how bare bones this version is, it was also useful to follow the synopsis of the source play, which is much better documented than this screen adaptation. Of course, I was able to follow a lot of it because I’ve seen the story on screen before, in G. W. Pabst’s masterful silent film from 1929, Pandora’s Box, which combines both of Franz Wedekind’s Lulu plays, as indeed most theatrical companies tend to do, the two being Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box), from 1895 and 1904.

I’d suggest that I can see why, because this is an emotional downward spiral on its own, as our heroine or villain, depending on how you see her, leaves behind her quite the collection of broken and dead men. However, that only keeps escalating in the second play, so there’s no escape from the dark melodrama.

She starts this film as Mrs. Goll, the wife of a doctor, to whom she’s been married off by Dr. Schön, the rich newspaper editor who plucked her off the streets as a child and made her into his mistress. They’re all at Schwarz’s studio, so he can paint her as a Pierrot, the sad clown of Italian pantomime.

She’s all over her husband before Alwa, Dr. Schön’s son, picks them up to see The Yellow Bird, a ballet he’s written. However, as soon as they’re gone, she turns her attentions over to Schwarz, who literally chases her around the studio. And, having caught her, Dr. Goll shows back up, breaks in and dies of a heart attack at the sight of his unfaithful bride.

I could say that the rest of the film is a rinse and repeat process as Lulu works through the entire male cast of the film, marrying this one, taking up with that one after this one commits suicide, persuading the other one to break off his engagement so she can marry him instead of swanning off to Africa with a paramour, but cheat on that other one with everyone else in sight. And I think you get the picture. Let’s say that it’s far from inappropriate that the Dutch for “Einde” is “Slut.” Is that simply “The End” or a one-word synopsis of the entire movie?

There are two really important notes here.

One is that Lulu is supposed to be the primal form of woman, but she’s really the personal epitome of the primal form of woman to each of the men she charms her way through. Each sees her in a different way, as a different ideal of feminity, so she’s really Everywoman with no boundaries, which worked really well in decadent Weimar Germany.

The other is that Lulu is played by a Danish actress called Asta Nielsen, who was a massive star in Germany, where she made the majority of her films, and she’s a revelation here to me, because I don’t think I’ve seen her act before.

If she’s remembered at all today, it’s for her pivotal role in bringing naturalism to cinema, a style that seems like anathema to silent film when universal stories were told through the language of movement and overacting was the accepted norm. Just comparing her to the rest of the cast is eye-opening and there are scenes of serious power, especially during the third of five acts, when I forgot there was no score and was caught up in her artistry.

This is a very German movie, with plenty of the expressionism I know from horror films of the era. Art direction was by Robert Neppach, who had worked for F. W. Murnau and one of the characters, an old “acquaintance” of Lulu’s called Schigolch, is Alexander Granach, Knock in Murnau’s Nosferatu a year earlier. There are scenes here borrowed from it, like Dr. Goll climbing the stairs to find Lulu with Schwarz, everything drawn in expressionistic shadows.

The sets are huge, every one of them with a ceiling twice as high as my house, plenty with such cavernous space that they’re reminiscent of Grand Central Station. The first is easily the most expressionistic, Schwarz’s studio painted so that shadows turn everything into triangles to reflect the relationship unfolding within it.

However, they’re not richly populated with decor and props. Mostly, they’re just textures and backgrounds for the cast, who are clearly the priority. Some scenes don’t seem to have a setting at all, just a hint of one, because we’re so always focused on who that we never care much about where.

I couldn’t stop watching Asta Nielsen, even though, when wearing a Pierrot costume, she looked like Jack Lemmon in drag in Some Like It Hot. She wears a lot of costumes, not least due to having a stage career in Act III when they’re truly flamboyant, and she’s always magnetic, whether she’s looking surreal, magnificent or debauched. I discovered that it’s impossible to catch individual frames that do her justice. It’s important to see moments in video instead of captured stills.

Other actors work wonderfully in stills, like Gustav Rickelt as the lively Dr. Goll, Alexander Granach as the scheming Schigolch and even Carl Ebert as the melodramatic Schwarz. Easily the most obvious is Albert Bassermann as Dr. Schön, who’s initially too severe to appreciate fully but who shines when he finally breaks, as Lulu persuades him to sign a letter calling off his engagement and victoriously slips the ring off his finger.

I enjoyed this far more than I expected to. It seems like a greatly simplified and condensed version of a bigger story, shifting from crucial scene to crucial scene without any of the filler in between them. It seems bare bones with the production design setting mood far more than placement. It seems depressing, none of these characters leaving the film happier than they found it, emphatically including Lulu.

Yet I found myself consistently captured by it, even if I was watching people rather than a story. It often felt like I was walking through a video installation, each screen I pass showing an emotional vignette, my job being to piece them together into a coherent whole.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that Asta Nielsen shot the sequel first, in 1921.

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