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Movie Review – Asphalt (1929 – Germany)

Updated on March 3, 2012

Asphalt is an astonishing silent film that holds up very well because the medium is used so well here. It is another example of the Golden Age of silent film, which happened just at the moment sound was being introduced, and was the culmination of the artistic development of the medium as a purely visual vocabulary. The story therefore is told almost entirely in visuals, and the acting is simply superb. The sets (which were designed by Erich Kettelhut—Dr. Mabuse , der Spieler , Metropolis , Berlin: Die Symphonie der Grossstadt —with the uncredited help of Robert Herlth (Der Müde Tod , Der Letzte Mann , Tartüff , Faust —and Walter Röhrig—Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari , Tartüff , Faust —are an Art Deco dream, the gorgeous costume design and (of the day) special effects are breathtaking, as is the use of the asphalt imagery (that being so modern in 1929 that it would be like calling a picture "the app" today).

Watch this great picture right now:

A funny scene from Asphalt as Betty Amann seduces with her eyes:


German cinema moved away from the realm of fantasy such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari released in 1920—which dominated it during the early part of the 1920s, and shifted toward gritty, realistic stories that were decidedly downbeat as the decade ended. The economic forces at work worldwide created a sense of fear, paranoia and increasing xenophobia. Asphalt was released on March 11, 1929, fully six months before the American Stock Market crash that heralded the Great Depression, but Europe was already in a financial decline. The story line of Asphalt is slim, a pulp fiction plot, and although it is a love story, it ends on a distinctly moralistic and emotionally unsatisfying note. The banality of the story has been criticized since Asphalt premiered, and a noted film critic of the time, Fritz Walter, described the conflict between duty and love at the heart of Asphalt as “Die Banalität des Filmmanuskripts” (the banality of the film script). I will not argue with that appraisal, and yet I find that this picture rises above the script due to the extraordinary artistry of the sets, the costumes, the acting, the beauty of the cinematography (by Günther Rittau, noted for Die Nibelungen , Metropolis , Der Blaue Engel ), and the emotional tone that it conveys.


I mean, just look at Betty Amann as the kleptomaniac Else: The hair, the eyes, the clothes! And watch Gustav Frolich as uptight policeman Albert unravel as she seduces him—he's nearly out of the off-putting silent makeup by the film’s end, it gets washed away by sheer emotion and he looks as natural as any modern day leading man.


Asphalt is one of the lesser-known films from the silent era, perhaps because of that notoriously slender plot, perhaps because it has moments of comedy and therefore isn’t thought of as a “serious” film. It’s a shame because it’s just a terrific picture and deserves to be watched much more often than it is.


I have argued many times that the silent films made late in the era are far more artistic than the early sound films, and Asphalt is a great example of why. The camera weaves and sways along the asphalt streets of Berlin, it flows through Else’s apartment in a way the cameras of early sound simply could not: They were shrouded in huge, sound-proof wooden crates to prevent the primitive microphones from being overwhelmed by their whirl. Cameras became temporarily as static as they had been at the birth of film, the visual element was subjugated, and all efforts were focused on the novelty of sound. It would be many years before advancing sound technology allowed directors to once again create visual masterpieces in any way comparable to Asphalt.


Copyright © Roberta Lee 2012. All rights reserved.


(I am an artist and the author of the Suburban Sprawl series of novels as well as two nonfiction books. Find out more about my work at RobertaLeeArt.com.)


Genre: Drama, Art House, Foreign, German, International, Comedy

Rating: Unrated

Running Time: 1 hr. 30 min.

Directed By: Joe May

Written By: Joe May, Hans Székely

Cinematography By: Günther Rittau

Set Design By: Erich Kettelhut

In Theaters: Jan 1, 1929 Wide

On DVD: Jul 18, 2006


Cast:

Albert Steinrück - Hauptwachtmeister Holk

Else Heller - Frau Holk

Gustav Fröhlich - Wachtmeister Albert Holk

Betty Amann - Else Kramer

Hans Adalbert Schlettow - Konsul Langen

Where were you introduced to silent films? (Another answer? Please enter it in the Comments Box)

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    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 5 years ago

      I love silent films. This is one I haven't yet seen and know little about, however.

    • DIYmyOmy profile image
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      DIYmyOmy 5 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      Try it, I think you'll be very happy you did, and thanks for the comment!

    • DIYmyOmy profile image
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      DIYmyOmy 5 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      Thanks, I will say that if you want to start with a silent, this would be a good one because it's an easy to follow story and the imagery is just gorgeous. Another would be Fritz Lang's Metropolis (for which I have written a review) because it's an interesting story--the first full length Sci Fi--and was state-of-the-art when made.

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