He’s a naïve Berlin cop. She’s a streetwise thief. Yup. Romance. But we’re in this for the Weimar gutter glamor and this film delivers in spades. One of the last great silent films to come out of the German industry, Asphalt is also a revelation for anyone who has not seen the work of director Joe May.
“Hey, baby, you wanna play cops and robbers?”
Poor Joe May. A pioneering director in the German film industry, he remains a comparatively little-known figure. While Lubitsch, Murnau and Lang are praised the world over, May and his films languished in obscurity.
May’s reputation got a one-two boost a few years back with the home media release of The Indian Tomb, his Orientalist revenge epic and Asphalt, a steamy little love story between cops and robbers. In fact, Asphalt is sometimes called a masterpiece. So, we can go home, right? The review is done. “Masterpiece” was the verdict.
Hold your horses! Not everyone agrees.
Lotte Eisner, esteemed historian of German silent film and mentor to Werner Herzog, was not kind to either May or Asphalt. She describes the film in her perennial work, The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt:
“Within this insipid plot May occasionally remembers his artistic ambitions… The rest is a mixture of successes of previous films… In the end, all that Joe May’s pretentions to avant-garde artistry and his skillful imitation lead to is an image which is highly symbolic of his own insignificance.”
Owch! Did May steal Lotte’s lollipop when she was a kid?
The very opinionated Siegfried Kracauer sits this one out. In From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, he merely recounts the finale of the film and its attitude toward the city streets as a haven for love. One gets the feeling that he was meh about the whole thing.
So, of the two most famous experts on German silent cinema, one hates the film and the other is apathetic. Things are not looking so good for Mr. May.
Recently, critics and viewers have been far more receptive to Asphalt, praising it as proto-noir and one of the great arguments for the art of the silent film. It was among the last major silent films to be released by Ufa before the thirties brought sound and a dangerous new political climate to Germany.
The modern viewpoint, as illustrated by a glowing review from Bright Lights Film Journal:
“Joe May’s visual storytelling is so adroit that you can forget how sparse the dialog in the titles actually is… The eyes communicate the desire and the fear. Intense close-ups, exquisitely photographed, seem to climax each encounter; the expressive language within them includes the motion of an eyebrow, a set of the jaw, a tensing of the shoulders. Even the most minor characters project subtleties of feeling with an economy of means.”
So, are we to believe Eisner or the modern critics? Let’s jump into the vibrant world of Asphalt and see for ourselves.
The hero of the story is a young constable, Albert Holk (Gustav Fröhlich). Young Holk lives with his doting mother (Else Heller) and stern police chief father (Albert Steinrück) and he is the apple of their eyes.
Many reviewers make much of Holk living with his parents. It illustrates his sheltered nature! This fails to take into account the dire economic situation in post-war Germany, as well as the general acceptance of families living together in Europe and the Americas during the first half of the twentieth century. Holk is indeed sheltered but these writers are drawing the right conclusion from the wrong clues.
The scene opens with the camera sweeping the family’s apartment. A caged bird, a collection of tidy canisters, a police helmet on a peg… The Holks live a life of shabby respectability. A place for everything and everything in its place.
Our hero’s shipshape manner extends beyond his family relationships. Think of every stereotype that can be placed on a German policeman and you have young Holk in a nutshell. Well, at least on the surface. He’s stiff, efficient, takes inordinate pleasure in directing traffic and believes that law and order should come before all else.
The second main character is soon introduced. Else (American export Betty Amann) is a fashionable woman who is engaged in batting her eyelashes at an elderly jeweler. While the old man remains enchanted by her beauty and the sweet way she smiles at his stories, Else contrives to press a loose diamond into the wax tip of her parasol.
The jeweler’s sons have a more clear-headed view of the situation. The diamond is soon missed and before Else can make her getaway, she is confronted. Holk intervenes and escorts Else back to the jewelers to be searched by a female employee. The diamond is not on Else, of course, but our hawkeyed officer cannot be fooled. He finds the diamond still affixed to her parasol.
Else dissolves into tears. She needed the money terribly. She was being evicted. She couldn’t survive living on streets! The jeweler asks Holk not to press any charges. The diamond was returned and no real harm was done. Holk refuses. The law is the law.
As they ride to the police station, Else continues to weep but also uses surreptitious glances to size up young Holk. Her verdict: not bad. She covertly powders her nose and then makes her move. Under the pretense of fetching her identity papers, they return to her apartment and this is where things get really interesting.
Amann is often compared to Louise Brooks, which is fair given their similar career trajectories. Both were languishing in so-so Hollywood roles before heading to Germany and blossoming within the more permissive and assertively artistic Weimar cinema. The role of Else is a juicy one, a part that any actress would love to sink her teeth into and Amann proves that she is more than up to the task.
However, there is also a dab of Rudolph Valentino about Miss Amann. During the mid-teens and through the twenties, Hollywood was gaga for the caveman (i.e. rough) style of romance and Valentino was the most famous practitioner.
Well, Else’s aggressiveness might have given Rudy pause. While waiting for his prisoner to find those darn papers, Holk is determined to do his duty and bring the miscreant in. Else is at the end of her rope. She has tried weeping, she has tried liquor, she has tried playing sick. Nothing has worked (though Holk is weakening). All she has left is her most potent weapon.
Holk at first seems immune to her charms but as he tries to retreat, Else leaps on him, winding around him like a boa constrictor. She hisses that she likes him and his helmet goes tumbling to the ground. He’s still struggling but she drags his head back by the hair and kisses him. Poor Holk never had a prayer.
(Some reviews compare Else to a cat. I am sticking with the snake, thanks.)
When Else kisses ‘em, they stay kissed and such is the case for Holk. He returns home in a daze. His mother has no idea what’s wrong but his father has an inkling. If the job’s going fine but the kid won’t eat and looks distracted… Attaboy, son!
His father only knows half the truth, of course. Yes, Holk is thinking about a woman but he is also haunted by his weakness and dereliction of duty. Else haunts him. As he undresses, his hand movements mimic hers. Finally, he collapses into bed.
Back at the very un-arrested Else’s apartment, there is every indication that Holk beat a hasty retreat after his seduction. Else finds his citation book on the floor with his identity card tucked inside. She smirks at the stiff photograph but then the smirk softens and she props the card on her nightstand. The camera pans and we see another man’s picture has a place there.
The man in the photo calls himself Langen and he’s played by Hans Adalbert Schlettow, who was last seen getting his throat slit by Uno Henning in A Cottage on Dartmoor. Langen is a safecracker of some skill. He is in the midst of a daring raid on a Parisian bank.
Else’s impulsive decision to return Holk’s identity card along with a gift, an expensive box of cigars, brings him back to her door. He seems relieved to be enraged because he can at least understand that emotion. His rage takes Else by surprise and it is her turn to be confused but one thing leads to another and Holk is once again under her spell.
After his second surrender to Else’s charms, Holk declares that he will marry her. Of course. In his mind, it is the only course of action. To Else, however, it never even came into consideration. Unfortunately for her, she has fallen for the naïve kid. Else dragged him a few steps into the underworld but now he is pulling her back out into bourgeois respectability. Unlike their first encounter, the pair is evenly matched… at least at first.
Will Holk succeed in bringing Else to the altar? Will she pull him further into the underworld? And just what is Langen going to do about all this? These questions propel Asphalt to its violent climax.
The single best thing about Asphalt is the acting. May draws career-topping performances out of his cast, particularly Amann and Fröhlich.
Betty Amann is hardly a household name even to fans of silent cinema. As mentioned before, her Hollywood career had consisted of roles in films with titles like Motorboat Mamas and Hubby’s Weekend Trip.
Strangely, she is often listed as a veteran of low-budget silent westerns even though she only made one before heading to Germany. Comedy had been her game in silent Hollywood. Asphalt was her first German film and no one could have asked for a better debut.
Amann owns her role, she occupies Else’s skin and we are charmed along with Holk. Else is pragmatic and not given to romance, which is conveyed through dozens of tiny gestures. Else is always weighing, measuring, comparing, sizing up, looking for the best deal.
Else’s costume choices also symbolize her character’s secretive, guarded nature. She wears her eyelashes three layers too thick (but very becoming, by the way), her cloche hats resemble a medieval helmet, her bangs are low and heavy. This is a woman who doesn’t open up her true self easily.
The best part of Amann’s performance is how she conveys Else’s gradual process of falling for Holk. When she first finds his citation book and identity card, she is triumphant. She put one over on the stupid cop and she has a souvenir. But then she places the card on her nightstand, giving it equal footing with her official lover’s photograph. The look on her face tells us immediately which one she prefers. As the Bright Lights review said, economical acting at its finest.
Else knows that any romance with Holk will only lead to trouble but her attempt to say farewell with a grand gesture—returning Holk’s citation book with a gift of cigars—backfires. Their business was unfinished. He wanted another confrontation and this gives him an excuse. What Else did not realize until he arrived was that she wanted one too. All of this is conveyed with a fluttered eyelash, a tilt of her head, a small smile.
After the silent era, Amann made films in Germany and the UK before returning to Hollywood. She had small supporting roles but nothing to restart her career and she made her last appearance in 1943. (As you can hear in 1939’s Nancy Drew… Girl Reporter, Miss Amann’s voice was just fine. I sure miss those false eyelashes though. Bah! Twenties fashion was so far superior that there’s no point in even comparing. And these thirties kids! Such squares!)
Amann’s career may not have ended on a high note but her performance in Asphalt is enough to count her among the finest actresses of the twenties.
On the other hand, Gustav Fröhlich is a familiar face to any fan of classic cinema. As the leading man of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, his place in film history is assured. I’m probably going to get into huge trouble for this but I have to confess that while I admire the technical innovation and creative vision of Lang and company, Metropolis not a favorite of mine. Lang often encouraged outrageous overacting from his cast and while it worked with some performers (Brigitte Helm, for example), Fröhlich was not one of them.
It’s a shame that most viewers (myself included) see him in Metropolis before Asphalt because the latter film really showcases how good he could be. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the most challenging role is playing someone who is impassive on the surface. Else is shimmering, fluid. She seems to sparkle on the screen. If Else is a flame, Holk is a slab of ice. There’s a human heart underneath but there’s no time for melting; he shatters.
Holk’s immaturity is shown in his wildly fluctuating emotions. The stern policeman is more wishful thinking on his part than his actual personality. Once he has hopelessly fallen for Else, his true self is laid bare and he looks like a child. When his naïve dreams are challenged, he retreats back into the safety of law and order. Fröhlich allows his character to dip back and forth between extremes but he maintains an internal truth that ensures these changes are believable. Holk is a young man playing dress-up in his father’s profession. His childlike innocence is the key to understanding his behavior.
In many ways, Else and Holk are both playing dress-up. They’re essentially little kids playing cops and robbers with much higher stakes. They’ve left the nursery too soon. This impression is reinforced by the youth of the leads. When Asphalt was released, Fröhlich was not yet twenty-seven and Amann had just turned twenty-four.
I must also praise Else Heller and Albert Steinrück as Holk’s parents. Without giving too much away, I will say that the scene in which our hero confesses all is exquisitely acted by all involved. Holk’s mother is all heart, a sweet and affectionate woman. His father is a true authoritarian. Once he dons his uniform, his gait takes on the mechanical swing of a toy soldier. Holk is trying to be his father but he is really his mother’s son.
Anyway, the scene occurs late in the film and as Holk acknowledges his crimes to his parents, you can see their faces change. At first, both are shocked at the revelations but then they realize that they are about to lose their only child. Holk’s father retreats behind the mask of a policeman but his mother openly weeps and the newly-human Holk weeps with her.
The emotion of the scene leads me to wonder just how personal it was for Joe May. May was married to his frequent leading lady, Mia. (She was a likable and active heroine in The Indian Tomb, which featured a villainous Conrad Veidt.) The pair had only one child, a daughter named Eva. She was engaged to Rudolf Sieber, an associate of her father’s, but he left her for a then-unknown Marlene Dietrich. Eva May shot herself to death in 1924 at the age of twenty-two.
Dietrich’s biographer, Steven Bach, interviewed Mia May and strongly suggests that Eva’s suicide was linked to her losing Sieber to another woman. However, it should be noted that Eva May was notably unlucky in love during her short life– Sieber was neither the first nor the last man to leave her high and dry– and the reasons for her suicide are not definitively known.
What is known is that her parents were devastated. Mia retired from the movies and it seems that Joe’s films (from what I have been able to view) took on a more melancholy tone.
The terror of losing a child is tangible in Asphalt and the despair of the parents is heartbreaking.
So, we know that the acting is exquisite. Now let’s talk about the story. What Eisner calls insipid, I call iconic. The starchy young officer abandoning his principles because he can’t resist the charms of a beautiful criminal? It’s the plot of the world’s most popular opera and dozens of noir films.
Asphalt is certainly beautiful to look at. May pulls out all the stylish stops and throws them at the screen with a showman’s flair. Anthony Asquith tried something similar in A Cottage on Dartmoor, released the same year and sharing the talent of Schlettow. Asquith’s jejune treatment soon becomes wearing. May, on the other hand, was working from nearly two decades of experience as a director. The difference is immediately apparent as May employs his nimble camera with assurance and forethought. While Asquith was playing with a new toy, May was a mature artist with a formidable toolbox.
(Ooo, I’m cruising for a bruising in this review, yes? First Metropolis and now this. Please note that I prefer all letters of rebuke to address me as either Madam.)
We have montages and double exposures and an incredibly nimble camera but May’s most effective trick is the closeup. As you can see from the screen caps, May creates a deeply intimate film by simply focusing on his performer’s faces. This intimacy combined with exquisite scene composition is what is most responsible for Asphalt’s confident stylishness.
A brief question of genre. Asphalt is often lumped in with Expressionist films. Nope. In 1983, the New York Times wrote, “It would be hard to think of an artistic term currently more overused and devalued than expressionism.” The article was referring to painting but the problem is just as bad if not worse in the world of film. In fact, I dare say that the problem is even more acute today.
Basically, any film made in Germany with dark emotional aspects and a few shadows on the wall is thrown into the stack marked “E” for expressionism. It’s maddening to see such a valuable and specific term go the way of “awesome” or some similarly overused word.
Can we just agree that Asphalt has expressionist elements but is not a purely expressionist film? Deal? Deal.
However you describe it, Asphalt is perfectly brilliant and it’s also a great deal of fun to watch. The modern critics gush with good reason. It comes highly recommended for silent film fans and newcomers alike.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★½
Where can I see it?
Kino Lorber released a restored edition on DVD and via streaming. Unsurprisingly, the film was heavily censored upon its initial release and it had to be put back together using prints from German and Russian archives. The Kino release is the official Region 1 version of the restored film and it is accompanied by an excellent orchestral score by Karl-Ernst Sasse, who also created delightful accompaniment to the Lubitsch comedies The Doll and The Oyster Princess.