Early Sound Films at Leeds International Film Festival

The Blue Angel

The Blue Angel

Alongside a number of silents the Festival features two early examples of working with the ‘sound on film’ technology which arrived in the late 1920s. There were various systems in Europe and North America, but they were all fairly primitive. Cutting or overlaying sound in the manner that filmmakers used celluloid was not developed until the 1930s. Two avoid extraneous sound on the tracks film cameras were enclosed in padded booths, which limited camera movement. This was at a time when filmmakers had just developed the technology of the moving or ‘unchained’ camera. However, talented directors and their production crews quickly developed methods to use sound in an innovative and entertaining/dramatic fashion.

First we have The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel, 1920) filmed at the great UFA studios near Berlin. It was directed by Josef von Sternberg, a rather maverick filmmaker who had already established a career in Hollywood. His 1927 Underworld was a pioneer film in the gangster genre. Von Sternberg was born in Vienna but raised in the USA. He returned to Europe at the invitation of Eric Pommer, the great German producer. The film is famous partly because of its casting. It is the first sound film of Emil Jennings. Even more notable it introduced Marlene Dietrich to von Sternberg and the international public. Whilst Dietrich had already made a number of silent films in Germany, von Sternberg bought a new sensuous and dangerous side to the Dietrich persona. Later von Sternberg took Dietrich back to Hollywood where they made a series of provocative and sensuously inspired films. Sternberg’s career declined in the late 1930s but Dietrich became one of the great icons of Hollywood cinema.

Part of the film’s quality is due to the skills of the German film technicians at the UFA Studio. The Cinematography is by Günther Rittau and Hans Schneeberger: the Editing is by Sam Winston: the Sound Effects by Fritz Thiery: and Production Design by Otto Hunte and Emil Hasler. All of these craft people can be found on the credits of other German films of the period. The UFA studio was the centre of excellence during the 1920s and filmmakers from elsewhere in Europe were eager to work there – Alfred Hitchcock would be a prime example.

The film is adapted from a novel by Heinrich Mann, though the story is fairly truncated, removing the political critique found in the book. Instead Sternberg, who authored much of the script, produced a story of infatuation and its consequences.  Dietrich plays Lola, a night club entertainer, Jannings a professor at a local institute.

John Baxter writes of Dietrich’s Lola, “Her feline stroll on stage, her pointed mocking stares, her casual use of her own sexual allure to beguile the giggling, simpering Jannings became elements in a screen persona Dietrich was too exploit for the rest of her career.”

Sternberg, a director noted for his use of mise en scène and chiaroscuro, “plastered then [the sets] with scores of posters, hung the café with nets, dangling cardboard angels … and everywhere, low hung lamps that give the whole film an air of scented, smoky claustrophobia.”  The combination was an instant success. Sternberg and Dietrich returned in triumph to Hollywood and the film has become a classic of the period

M

M

The second feature was also made in Germany and in the UFA studio in the same period. This is Fritz Lang’s classic M, with an outstanding performance by Peter Lorre in the title role. The film has been transferred onto a DCP using a restoration made by the Deutsche Film Museum and other archives in 2003. The film was banned by the Nazi Party in 1934. It resurfaced in the 1960s but with numerous cuts amounting to over ten minutes of film. In addition the aspect ratio had been changed, leading to the cropping of character’s heads and other such anomalies. And the film’s soundtrack, famous for the effective and eerie use of silence, had been filled with rather tinny accompanying music. The restoration has recreated the film almost entirely as it was when released in 1931.

There is the memorable soundtrack that offers innovation in the new technology of sound on film. There is also impressive use of chiaroscuro, the moving or ‘unchained camera’, and studio built settings. All of these were skills that had placed German cinema in the forefront of European film in the 1920s. The production team included Fritz Arno Wagner on Cinematography, Production Designers Emil Hasler and Karl Volbrecht, Editing by Paul Falkenberg, and on the relatively new sound technology Adolf Jansen. The only music in the film is diegetic [within the story], famously using a passage from Edward Grieg’s ‘Peer Gynt’. Lang was noted for the use of architectural design in his films. And he places motifs, both visual and aural, that bind together the drama and point up aspects as it develops.

His previous silent films, scripted together with his wife Thea von Harbou, had been both popular and critically acclaimed. Lang also had a penchant for stories taken from real life including newspapers. This film follows the hunt for a serial killer (M), a topic that paralleled the trial of a real-life child murderer in Düsseldorf. However, Lang was also interested in moral judgements, so the film follows a hunt, not just by the police, but also by the criminal underworld, whose work has been disrupted by the search.

The film culminates in a trial scene, and one of the most memorable performances on screen as Lorre’s emotional responses question the judgement that can or should be made. The moral portrait of the film can also be seen as a critical view of the wider society. Some critics see it as a coded warning against the Nazi Party, who assumed power in 1933. This caused both Lang and Lorre to leave Germany, both ending up working in Hollywood. At another level some critics see the film as anti-death penalty, others as a justification for mob justice. The latter seems most unlikely; Lang’s earliest US film was a savage indictment of lynching, Fury (1937). In fact, like the best of Lang’s work, the film presents the characters and drama ambiguously, placing the audience in the position of evaluating and possibly judging.

Despite the travails of the film prints this drama has been enormously influential. One can see the influence in the work of Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s: on much of the Hollywood film noir canon, and still in a number of the contemporary serial killer films. This is one film that is undoubtedly worthy of the cachet classic.

Note, the other good news is that Leeds Central Library have just acquired a copy of Tom Gunning’s excellent study, The Films of Fritz Lang, bfi publishing 2000.

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