Wednesday 29 November 2023

Die Straße (1923)

Director: Karl Grune
Writers: Karl Grune and Julius Urgiß
Stars: Eugen Klöpfer, Lucie Höflich, Anton Edthofer, Aud Egende-Nissen, Max Schreck and Leonhard Haskel

Long before La Strada, there was another big foreign language film called The Street, namely Die Straße, though “foreign language” might be a little misleading because it’s a notably silent silent film, with almost no intertitles, meaning that the storytelling is even more visual than would normally be the case in 1923.

Unfortunately, there don’t appear to be any restored versions of the film out there, so I’ve had to struggle through a terrible quality print that is, at least, ninety minutes long. Versions of higher quality run only seventy-four, which I believe is the American cut.

Whichever version we watch, there’s highly expressionistic shadowplay, with a fascinating use of light and images distorted like funhouse mirrors. It’s visually striking even before the story starts to focus. There’s even a wonderful shot of a man peeking round a corner at a lady whose face suddenly turns into a skull; when he leaves, it goes back to normal.

None of the characters are named but we do gradually figure out who we’re watching.

One man looks out at the street of the title with an obvious longing. He sees life: a clown, a carnival, a young lady, firework displays, a man playing a music box. His wife only sees a street. And so, as she sits down to dinner, he runs out of there.

Another man leaves another house, behind an old man who’s apparently blind and a girl, who helps him get ready. We gradually realise that he’s a pimp and the others are his father and his daughter.

His girl, who is presumably also his hooker, finds the first man, who is eying his wage with intent. She tries to con him, because she’s lost all her money, but backs out of that when he takes her to the police station.

The little girl chases after a dog, so ends up stuck in the middle of the road while her blind granddad searches for her in vain. The street is crazy busy and eventually a policeman helps her across so she can hang out with other cops at the station. She has a grand old time. They even give her chocolate.

Her granddad trips over the kerb but finds a saviour, who helps him up and along, if not to find his granddaughter.

So far, there’s no story to focus on and we start to wonder if the lead character is the street itself, which serves as an able backdrop to the many smaller stories. Certainly, it tries to live up to its titular billing, especially when we follow an animated neon arrow built into the street to reach a club. There’s another great moment when a sign depicting a pair of eyeglasses blinks at us.

It’s here that a coherent story starts to show itself, because a collection of characters find it and start to interact: the first man looking for fun, the second man pimping out his girl and a new older man who seems highly interested in her services too, ones he can clearly afford.

This story grows until it bursts beyond the club and trawls in all those other characters: the girl, the blind man and, tellingly, the cops. At this point, we know exactly what’s going on and who’s doing what to who and why.

I enjoyed Die Straße far more than I thought I would, given its premise. I appreciated how it kept everything as anonymous as possible, the reasons why characters are how they are seen as far more important than mere names. I also appreciated how entire story arcs rose and fell in a single night, making this quite a snapshot of life on this particular street. What’s more, I appreciated how visual it all was, reducing the usual use of intertitles to the bare minimum.

No wonder it was highly influential, kicking off a little-known genre called street films that flourished in Germany during the second half of the twenties, with notable followers such as The Joyless Street and Asphalt. I look forward to seeing its influences as I continue this project over the years.

The restless first man, clearly going through quite the midlife crisis over that single night, is played by Eugen Klöpfer, who would remain in Germany during the Nazi’s era in power, as an increasingly important name. Working for Josef Goebbels led him to be appointed as Vice President of the Ministry of Arts and he even took a primary role in notorious propaganda movie Jud Süß. Ironically, given all that, it’s not him who has lasted best to posterity. The blind man is played by Max Schreck, who was riding high after his performance the year before as Nosferatu, one of the best and most recognised performances in all of German silent cinema.

At the end of the day, this isn’t about actors at all though. It was always going to be about moments and there are plenty of those. Those signs and the skull shot are frequently cited as important moments, as is the moment in the club when the first man looks down from the balcony of the club and experiences vertigo, a feeling emulated by a rotating camera, but the picture contains memorable moments dotted all the way through and each viewer is likely to leave with a different set ingrained in mind as their favourites.

Many will remember the card scene, which does not go entirely the way we expect. Others will remember the moment that the girl finds herself detached from her grandfather’s hand and stuck in the middle of the bustling street. There are surely scenes late in the picture that I won’t spoil that stick in mind, easily the most impactful. There’s one in the apartment of the hooker and another in a jail cell, but arguably half a dozen in between.

To me, it’s the bookending scenes with the first man and his wife, for different reasons. At the beginning of the film, it’s all contrast, the different results of each looking at the street through their window merely the most overt. She goes about her business, doing housework or serving up dinner. He’s detached from that reality, choosing to ache instead for the street. At the end of the film, nothing’s changed for the wife but everything’s changed for the man and there’s serious emotional resonance in the routine she continues and the penance he has to pay. He clearly doesn’t deserve her.

I can see why many viewers wouldn’t get or even like this film. To properly work, it needs input from the viewer, not all of whom would be willing to put in that effort. If we do, then it will stay with us as a serious impression.

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