Light on plot and heavy in atmosphere, Asphalt (Joe May, 1929) was one of the last silent films to come out of Ufa, and the German mega-studio seems to have spared no expense in its making. The story of a young traffic cop seduced by an alluring con artist, it is also the silent swan song of director Joe May, long-time maker of detective serials and extravagant epics, and one of the last big silent films produced by Erich Pommer, the man who had overseen the creative minds behind Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene, 1920) and the budget-busting Metropolis (1927), the latter of which had very nearly sunk Ufa.
For the film’s city intersection, in which Gustav Fröhlich’s Constable Albert Holk controls the traffic, a 400-metre-long street was built in a former zeppelin hangar in Staaken. The giant exits of the hangar were left open during the shoot in order to give the illusion of an urban horizon stretching out into a plausible distance. The street itself was paved in actual asphalt – “a thin layer”1 – and the shops that lined it were outfitted with neon signs and display window trappings provided by actual Berlin merchants. It was lit, according to one report, by 23,000 bulbs.
A contemporary visitor to the set reported on the scale of the production: “The consumption of electricity brought, when in operation, the rest of the film studios and almost the entire area to a complete standstill.”2 Once the story gets going, however, the elaborate city set is largely put aside for what is essentially a Kammerspielfilm, mostly taking place in the tight labyrinth of rooms where the cop lives with his parents and in the elegant spaces of his illicit liaison.
Part of the chaos that Holk wrangles one morning includes the arrest of a beautiful young woman, Else (played by American Betty Amann), who has just palmed a high-priced rock from the nearby jewellery store. The old jeweller, distracted by the shoplifter’s charms and sympathetic to Germany’s hard economic times, prefers to let her go now the merchandise has been recovered. Instead, Holk – the son of a cop, and convinced of the hard-and-fast line between right and wrong – insists on taking her into custody. As they sit side by side in the car on the way to the station, the thief uses her tried-and-true wiles to open cracks in his certitude. Siegfried Kracauer complained at the time of the film’s release that Amann’s individual eyelashes could be counted in her close-ups – a sign, for him, that the technical accomplishment of Asphalt had been achieved at the cost of any “spiritual meaning”.3 To us, those eyelashes mean Holk would have been better off showing mercy back at the jeweller’s.
Today we’d call her a femme fatale, of the kind that Hollywood, with the help of German expats, would soon burnish into unrepentance in the film noir genre. In 1929, though, she’s a jazz-age update of all the vamps before her, but with a plot twist that complicates her wickedness. At first, May seems to be appealing to the hinterlands, nudging along fears about corrupt, swinging Berlin. “Asphalt culture,” warned contemporary economist Werner Stombart, shaped “a species of human being that leads its life with no genuine affinity with living nature … a species with pocket watches, umbrellas, rubber shoes and electric light.”4 It’s no accident, too, that Joseph Goebbels later used “asphalt culture” to dog-whistle to his Jew-hating base. But May also seems to call into question the virtue of virtuousness, showing the emotionally fraught Holk boxed in both by his tiny room at his parents’ home and their simplistic morality. When the city girl ends up saving the boy, it feels less like just deserts for a life of sin than it does heroic self-sacrifice. That Holk avoids jail is still a relatively happy ending, at least for the rule-following deutsche Volk, and aligned with Pommer’s belief that “it is better after all that a film is too light than that it is too heavy”.5
Having recently returned from producing at Paramount, Pommer tried to impose American studio efficiency on German filmmaking, combining controlled extravagance with simple stories aiming at universal appeal. For Asphalt, he chose his director well. Under Pommer, May had just finished Homecoming, one of Ufa’s most successful releases of 1928, and he was also a producer in his own right, with an affinity for super productions and an eye on the export market. “Lovers will always understand lovers; jealous husbands, jealous husbands,” he had advised in 1922 about choosing stories to film for international audiences. “He who suffers the torments of conscience will never fail to recognize his similarly tortured brother.” 6 May also had a rep for doing whatever it took to get the shot. A story circulates about the filming of The Indian Tomb (Das indische Grabmal, 1921), his two-part adaptation of an orientalist script by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou: after being flung into a lake by the trunk of an intractable elephant, May yells out to keep rolling just before hitting the water.
Coming as it did on the heels of the beginning of the sound era, Asphalt did pretty well at the box office (even if it did receive a few snarky critiques). And May’s formula for universal stories has been applied through cinema’s decades – from a bicycle thief in Rome to a husband in Tehran out to avenge an assault on his wife. Back in 1922, May offered more incentive for such filmmaking than just healthy cross-cultural box office: “The film spectator will and must learn from such films how to recognize even distant and strange people from other continents whom he sees on the screen as beings similar to himself and respect them accordingly; he will no longer see them as mean, aggressive beasts of inferior race who must be struck dead in order to cleanse the world of them – as the hate-mongers who surround him would so gladly convince him to do.”7 In this regard, the movies failed the German people completely – a failure that, nonetheless, makes May’s advice all the more resonant today.
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Asphalt (1929, Germany, 94 min)
Prod Co: Universum-Film AG (Ufa) Prod: Erich Pommer Dir: Joe May Scr: Joe May, Hans Székely, Rolf E. Vanloo Phot: Günther Rittau Art Dir: Erich Kettelhut, Robert Herlth, Walter Röhrig
Cast: Gustav Fröhlich, Betty Amann, Albert Steinrück, Else Heller, Hans Adalbert Schlettow
- Tim Bergfelder, Sue Harris and Sarah Street, Film Architecture and the Transnational Imagination: Set Design in 1930s European Cinema (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007), p. 124. ↩
- ibid., p. 124. ↩
- Siegfried Kracauer, Frankfurter Zeitung, No. 235, 28 March 1929; accessed via https://www.filmportal.de/en/node/15203/material/746815. ↩
- Quoted in Alastair Phillips, City of Darkness, City of Light: Émigré Filmmakers in Paris 1929–1939 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004) p. 27. ↩
- Erich Pommer, “Der internationale Film,” Film-Kurier, 28 August 1928. Quoted in Ursula Hardt, From Caligari to California: Eric Pommer’s Life in the International Film Wars, (Providence and Oxford: Berghahn, 1996), p. 111. ↩
- Joe May, “The Style of the Export Film,” Film-Kurier, no. 166 (4 August 1922); translated and reprinted in Anton Kaes, Nicholas Baer, and Michael Cowan, The Promise of German Cinema: German Film Theory 1907–1933 (Oakland: Berkeley University Press, 2016) p. 295. ↩
- ibid., p. 295. ↩