Joe May, born Julius Otto Mandl in Austria in 1880, was one of the many German filmmakers working for the prestigious Ufa studios who made their way, after the influential silent German Expressionist period of the 1920s, to the big Hollywood studios where May would go on to make less prestigious films such as The House of Fear and The Invisible Man Returns. Coming in the golden period of silent cinema, just before the advent of talkies when the craft had to be learnt anew, May’s Asphalt is a fine example of the characteristics and virtues of late German silent cinema.
Asphalt opens with a scene-setting montage using all the effects and overlays that had been pioneered by May and his contemporaries, effectively locating the film in the present-day 1920’s Germany – workers pounding the asphalt into the roads, a montage of cars and traffic on those busy roads and the crowds of people thronging past the glamorous shops on those busy streets of modern-day Berlin. The stunning locations for the opening scenes, all filmed – with characteristically elaborate detail, spectacle and scores of extras – in the famed Ufa studios. It’s a bravura opening, which sets the scene well, introducing us to the lead characters in their natural working environment. Albert Holk (Gustav Frölich), a policeman who is directing the traffic, maintaining order where there would otherwise be chaos, and one of those wild elements in the crowd likely to break down the social order - Else (Betty Amann), a shoplifter who, distracting the owner with her charms, has just made off with a diamond from a jeweller’s shop.
And it is when these two characters meet in those particular circumstances that the drama arises. When the disappearance of the precious stone is discovered, Else is stopped in the street, just as the policeman Albert is passing by, having just finished his shift on traffic duty. Else pleads with the constable not to turn her in, but in spite of the sob-story she spins – with pleas of it being her first time doing such a thing, how she is unable to pay the rent on her apartment and the dangers that would face a young woman on the streets – Albert remains determined to carry out his duty. He lets her return to her apartment however to collect her identity papers, where the charming seductress is much more at home and the young man eventually succumbs to her charms. Albert falls in love with this beautiful woman, even though he finds that she is not the poor, almost destitute innocent she claimed to be. What he doesn’t realise however is that there is another man in Else’s life, who is working a crime operation on a bank in Paris and is about to return to Berlin.
Unlike other German films of this period, and despite the elaborate scene setting of the opening sequence, Asphalt does not take the direction of portraying the characters as either victims of modern day social circumstances or as criminals taking advantage of them in the way that film like Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922), would show the post-war social unrest and decadence of the society of this period under the guise of a crime thriller. Asphalt really has no social commentary to make. The film is about the conflicts of love and duty. Albert’s conflict between doing his duty as a policeman is mirrored in his father’s choice when he has to consider whether his son has to pay for his actions and mistakes. The ultimate choice comes from Else who through her love, carries out her duty at the film’s climax. Sure, it’s melodramatic, simplistic and not terribly original, but Joe May’s Asphalt, through the director’s silent storytelling skills and the subtlety of his choice of angles and cuts, makes it a touching and meaningful story at the same time.
Asphalt is released as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series (#7). The DVD is encoded for Region 2.
The picture quality on this old print is not as good a condition as some of the other Masters of Cinema titles, particularly the Fritz Lang films which are from the same period, but I’m sure – considering the absence of any serious marks or scratches, that the film has been restored as much as could possibly be expected. It’s a little bit hazy, slightly grainy and whites tend to flare brightly, but it’s hard to spot any scratches or damage on the print. The greyscale tones, although lacking detail in blacks, are nevertheless all there from those gleaming whites to the deep dark blacks. The grain causes inevitable problems with macro-blocking, but only if you look very closely or in freeze-frame – under normal viewing conditions the image remains relatively digital artefact free. A general instability can however be seen in a few scenes which wobble quite noticeably. Ratings are very difficult to make on films this old, but I’ve rated this a 7, as I assume it is good as the age and condition of the original materials allow, but the age of the film is certainly noticeable. Most importantly though, there is nothing here that detracts from the viewing experience.
The score for the film is composed by Karl-Ernst Sasse and it works marvellously, the lush orchestration and jazzy clarinet rhythms matching the melodramatic content perfectly. The score is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and sounds fabulous, with a wide dynamic range and rich, warm instrumentation.
The DVD gives the viewer the option of watching the film with or without English subtitles. The English subtitles are superimposed onto the original German intertitles, which are muted in the English version. All are perfectly clear and readable and appear to translate the film well.
This is not one of the Masters of Cinema’s prestige releases, so there are minimal extra features. A Gallery makes use of the limited poster materials for the film. The DVD also comes with a 16-page illustrated booklet containing the usual fine essay from R. Dixon Smith on Ufa Style and the End of Silent Cinema in Joe May’s Asphalt, putting the film into context with other work of the period and making a good case for the film itself against certain criticisms of it.
Asphalt is at heart a very simple morality tale played out through a straightforward though melodramatic storyline, but like Murnau’s The Last Laugh or Sunrise, through that particular magic of silent cinema and the purity of visual image alone, it touches on a deep human level beyond - or perhaps because of – its very simplicity. The picture quality on this film, which is over 75 years old, inevitably shows a number of problems through its age and is perhaps not as clear as some of the other titles from this period released under the Masters of Cinema label, but the restoration work, seen by the fact that there are few signs of damage on the print whatsoever, is as well done as ever and the film still looks very well indeed on this DVD release.