Saturday, April 19, 2014

Backstairs (1921)

Director: Paul Leni                                          Writer: Carl Mayer
Film Score: Hans Landsberger                         Cinematography: Willy Hameister
Starring: Henny Porten, Fritz Kortner, William Dieterle and Eugene Dieterle

In Siegfried Kracauer’s seminal work on German silent film, From Caligari to Hitler, he has a footnote containing a single sentence from a source he did not find otherwise terribly convincing: “If it is permissible to describe the Caligari and Lubitsch trends as thesis and antithesis in the early German film, we may say that Waxworks represents the synthesis of these two influences.” But I would say that even that assessment misses the mark. Paul Leni’s Backstairs (Hintertreppe) would seem to be the film that most perfectly assimilates both the Expressionist look of Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the romantic sentiments of Ernst Lubitsch. This style of story, with Expressionistic sets and an intimate love story, was known as kammerspiel in the German theater and quickly made it’s way to film, finally reaching its apotheosis with F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise in Hollywood and Ecstasy with Hedy Lamarr in Austria.

The story is simple enough. The maid at a boarding house, Henny Porten, slips down the back stairs at night to meet her lover, William Dieterle, in the alley. What she doesn’t realize, however, is that she is being watched by a crippled postman, Fritz Kortner, who lives in the basement of the building. When her lover doesn’t meet her one night she looks for a letter from him the next day from Kortner. This is repeated for the next two nights until finally Porten gets word from him. It’s clear that Kortner is obsessed with the beautiful Porten, but equally as obvious that she sees absolutely nothing in him other than his job. She is so happy to get the letter that she can’t resist showing him, plunging him into despair, and making it even worse when she brings down wine to his room later that evening to celebrate with him. What she discovers, however, destroys her happiness when it turns out to have been the Kortner who wrote the letter and while she forgives him, it’s little consolation to either of them. What’s absolutely fascinating, however, is that he keeps writing more letters and the absolutely heart-wrenching consequences that come about as a result.

Director Paul Leni also worked with theater director Leopold Jessner on the film, and the two couldn’t have been a more perfect together. Leni’s sets are wonderfully Expressionistic. They lack the extreme nature of Caligari, but the film is the better for it, and it would really set the template for the kind of sets that would be used in Fritz Lang’s films all the way to Murnau’s Sunrise. Likewise, what Jessner manages to wring out of the human drama in the piece is breathtaking. The emotions that Porten and Kortner display are so strong and so identifiable that the film has no need for title cards at all, though it’s clear there probably were some at the time. From stills taken from the film there also appear to be a few short scenes missing as well. Nevertheless, even that can’t diminish what is a powerful story and brilliantly conceived film. The story was also written by Carl Mayer, one of the great screenwriters of the German cinema, which only adds to the film’s greatness.

The film’s star, Henny Porten, elected to stay in Germany even after the Nazi’s took power, which was bad luck because her husband was Jewish. By 1932 she was one of the biggest female movie stars in the country but, because she wouldn’t divorce her husband, Joseph Goebbles blackballed her and her career never really recovered after that. Even when she finally wanted to leave the country it was too late, as Goebbles decided it would sent a bad message and invalidated her passport. In this film one can see why she epitomized the German ideal of womanhood, blonde and voluptuous and thoroughly captivating onscreen. Fritz Kortner does a nice job as the crippled postman, and eventual Hollywood director William Dieterle does fine in his small role as the lover. Paul Leni, of course, immigrated to the United States and was on the verge of a tremendous Hollywood career after some impressive work at Universal before he unexpectedly died in 1929. Backstairs is a tremendous film, not only for its time but in comparison to any silent film. It is a real find and comes highly recommended.

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