Rob Edelman: Dupont’s Variete

Sep 18, 2017

Once upon a time, I was delighted to discover and savor a number of German silent films that date from the 1920s-- or, before the coming to power of Adolph Hitler. One of my favorites was VARIETE, released in 1925 and directed by E.A. Dupont. Across the years, all the other titles, from Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS to F.W. Murnau’s THE LAST LAUGH to Josef von Sternberg’s THE BLUE ANGEL, have been screened in a range of venues. But one was conspicuously missing, and that was VARIETE. Happily, however, Kino Classics recently released VARIETE to home entertainment in a beautifully restored print that was culled from several international sources, and it truly is a pleasure to re-see and rediscover.

The central character in VARIETE is a former carnival barker and acrobat who has long been languishing in jail. Before his face even appears on-camera, we see that he is a hulking figure: a man who has been suffering in silence for his transgressions. As the story plays itself out, we see, via flashback, what those transgressions are. At first, he is a barker in a third-rate Hamburg carnival. Even though he is married and a father, he finds himself attracted to a young waif. She may be an innocent who is suffering from ill-luck, but she still exudes a raw sexuality. Soon, he is partnered with her in a big-name high-wire act which has earned headlines in Berlin. But what will happen when she becomes involved between the sheets with another man: the third person who has become part of their act?

What I vividly recall about VARIETE are its inventive, eye-popping camera angles, camera movement, and cinematography. Particularly riveting are the images of the various carnival talent in Hamburg and the manner in which those in the seats respond to them. In particular, the women who are billed as the participants in a “Parisian beauty contest” actually are worn and downtrodden, with defeat etched across their faces. They either are accepting of their plight, whatever that may be, or they employ their sexuality to play to the basic instincts of the men in the audience in order to achieve their hidden agendas. Plus, the looks on the faces of the males who lustfully gaze at them serve as the personification of the cliché that pictures are indeed worth thousands of words. The VARIETE cinematographer is Karl Freund, a groundbreaking director of photography whose credits include early German titles, 1930s and 40s Hollywood classics, and even TV’s I LOVE LUCY in the 50s. His images remains as dazzling as ever.

Then there is the vivid presence of its main actor: Emil Jannings, who is lively and spirited where appropriate and then as equally demoralized and defeated. Jannings was a leading star of the German cinema. In fact, one of the special features on the VARIETE Blu-ray is his appearance in Shakespeare’s OTHELLO, which dates from 1922. Jannings’ plight is well-worth noting. Near the end of the 1920s, he came to Hollywood and earned an asterisk as the first-ever star to win the Best Actor Academy Award. He soon returned to Germany and, as Hitler came to power, he remained there and even starred in a number of Nazi propaganda films. But Jannings is at his very best in VARIETE, a story of jealousy and lust: a film which mirrors the basic raw emotions that transcend time and place. At its core, it is a film about men and women: how men covet women, and how women respond. 

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.