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Rancid Popcorn » Asphalt (Joe May, 1929)

Asphalt (Joe May, 1929)

“We had faces then.”

Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard

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Asphalt is a late silent from Germany’s UFA studio machine, and it spends its early scenes showing off UFA’s massive indoor street sets, much as Lang’s Three Penny Opera more famously does a couple years later. At least I think it’s all/nearly all setbound – I’m no UFA expert, and would appreciate correction if wrong.

Regardless, these early scenes of cars and streets and people filling them prepare you for a certain kind of tale – reinforced by the title itself, superimposed over workmen pounding out fresh asphalt into new/repaired streets. We’re set up to see something about hardscrabble lives, a downmarket city symphony. It’s all misdirection however. The story, of a young traffic cop and the vampish jewel thief/demimondaine he happens to arrest is ultimately an acute proof of Norma Desmond’s assertion. The film is about faces faces faces in closeup closeup closeup.

That beginning, tracing Berlin as day turns to night, is technically marvellous.  It draws a Berlin emanating from our traffic cop in the middle of his intersection as if it were ground zero, and drifts along streets, showing it to be a place of both aggression and cool architectural beauty.

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Lead actor Gustav Frohlich, directing traffic from his pitcher’s mound-like perch, conducting an aria of gunning engines.

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I had to consult a German-English dictionary to figure out what “Strumpfe” meant, because at first I thought it might mean…well…strumpet.  It means stockings, hosiery.  Weimer Berlin wasn’t quite that decadent, at least in the cinema.

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Our first of oh so many medium closeups of Frohlich, as Officer Holk.  He’s immediately familiar to me as the earnest hero of Lang’s Metropolis. He’s about as earnest here, and maybe even more innocent.   He seems to have a real market in playing big saps.  The lady in white is our female lead, Betty Amann.  Her striking, often downright bizarre look is arresting, and May indulges her in a cavalcade of closeups.

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My first thought was, “I wonder what she actually looks like under that pound and a half.”  And that’s just on her eyelashes.  She bats them pretty freely too, and I’m guessing when she did they could feel the wind in Cincinnati.  Betty’s German acting career seems to begin hot on the heels of Louise Brooks’.  Like Brooks, she was an American expat, and it’s hard to imagine producer Erich Pommer wasn’t trying to spin her into Brooks 2.0.  It’s unfortunate it didn’t result in a longer, better-remembered career; along with the in-your-face hair and makeup, she does some surprisingly subtle and naturalistic physical acting in the less rambunctious scenes.

When we meet her, the Lady in White (Else) is visiting a Jeweler’s, and slyly pocketing a diamond while she charms the proprietor.  The shopkeepers tumble to it a moment after she leaves and take to the streets after her.  Traffic cop Holk, being the nearest law, makes the pinch.  Else turns on the waterworks, and the jeweler is willing to let her off, but the law is the law.  Holk takes her in.

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Or almost does.  She cries enough and tells enough of a sob story to get him to take her to her apartment first to collect some papers before booking and jail.  He relents.  Once she gets him in her apartment, she’s got to make her play – if she can seduce the simple guy, there’s no way he can bring her in.  It’s do or die.  The scene that follows is pretty astonishing if you ask me – part seduction, part Greco Roman wrestling.  It begins in the clip below with Holk pacing her sitting room, waiting for her to retrieve her things from her bedroom:

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After their encounter, the cop has returned home to the simple apartment he shares with his salt of the earth, God-fearing parents.  They are obviously a loving pair with great pride in their grown son.  Dad is an officer himself who no doubt helped him get his start in the profession.  We see the effects here:  Holk is torn by guilt about what he’s done, Else is free to reflect with, at the very least, fondness.   She may have had a practical reason for the seduction, but she enjoyed herself all the same. 

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More comparing and contrasting, with some of those great closeups mixed in:  Else is perfectly happy, lives in style, and has hired help to assist with her bath.  Holk tosses and turns in anguish and gets his poor man’s cleanup – dunking his head in a sink.

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Else has sent over Holk’s ID, which he left at her apartment, along with a present of some cigars.  He storms over to throw them back in her face.  It’s pretty obvious that the simply aren’t going to be able to keep their hands off each other, even though both make something of an effort.  Their back and forth, resisting, succumbing, and finally attempts to understand what their genuine mutual feelings might portend take up 14 straight minutes of screen time in her apartment – it’s rather remarkable, and anything that might have seemed old hat about the rudimentary plot is dislodged by genuine, heartfelt, believable romance.  The problems of two people, amounting to something more than a hill of beans. 

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At one point he makes to leave, she sadly gives him his hat, but can’t quite let go of it. Classic.  The scene goes on and on, because they go on and on.  The world has devolved to two people.

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Well, maybe not just two.  Else’s hardened, well-heeled criminal boyfriend returns from a job in Paris and catches them in the middle of…emotional intimacy, I guess you’d call it.

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The shit goes down. Bad things happen. Holk returns to his parents, and tells them he has killed. They react with their respective versions of perfect love, which for dad includes turning his son in to face the music. Look at Frohlich in that last closeup. He’s surely seen and felt more of life in the last 24 hours than he had in the preceeding 24 years, and his face shows it -he suddenly looks like he’s dropped twenty pounds of babyfat and innocence, and there’s no going back.

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Else prepares to prove her love, and worthiness.  It is a far far better thing I do, etc, etc…

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Asphalt has only the barest excuse for a plot – it’s not many films of conventional narrative that try to get by on so little incident.  And that’s its glory.  Asphalt establishes its simple set up of good cop falls for fallen woman as if the question will be who will win – will the good guy redeem the woman , or will the vamp destroy the man?  That question becomes sheerest trivia as the film transcends all that to becomes a treatise on the elemental power of love to spin lives in a heartbeat, to rip rational self-interest aside, to make better people out of anyone, even those who seemed virtuous to begin with.  It is nothing less than a vindication of the human race.  Against all odds or expectations, this builds brick by brick into a work of Poetic Realism that can sit proudly alongside the work of Murnau or Ford.

And, like Norma Desmond, it’s always ready for a closeup.

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