The regular presentation of Britain’s early filmed legacy this year took the form of a one-day conference followed by a day of screenings at Kennington’s Cinema Museum. There were four sessions, each presenting a feature film, and some shorts, with the final film of both late-morning and late-afternoon sessions being a feature directed by Hungarian émigré Géza von Bolváry and starring Britain’s 1920s screen darling Betty Balfour, respectively The Vagabond Queen and Bright Eyes (both 1929). Other highlights were a drama about a woman finding liberation through, ahem, secretarial work in The Twelve Pound Look (1920) and a sort of proto-kitchen sink drama about working-class East Enders, one of whose set finds love with a posh toff in The Right to Live (1921). Each of the sessions was accompanied by a different musician, respectively John Sweeney, Cyrus Gabrysch, Lily Henley, and Stephen Horne, all of whom did a wonderful job.
This is the first film I saw at the 2013 BFI London Film Festival, aside from the preview screening of The Epic of Everest (1924), and I shall be presenting relatively short reviews of the films I saw at the Festival over the next week or two.
Film history has a tendency to memorialise only a few films as exemplars of passing trends and styles. In part this is due to the demands of film history texts, which can hardly include everything, but also reflects the way that certain films are more easily categorisable. The so-called “German expressionism” of the 1920s has its Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1920) and Metropolis (1927), while Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1929) is often recalled for its star Louise Brooks’s style. In the absence of a stand-out star or a definable style, perhaps Jenseits der Straße (literally “Beyond the Street”; the origin of the more common English language title is obscure, presumably relating to its dockside setting, much of it filmed in Rotterdam) has fallen through the cracks in film history. Or maybe, as is the way with a lot of silent films, it just didn’t really exist in a physically viewable version for critics and viewers to discover until this recent restoration. A lot of films have dropped out of film history that way, too. In any case, it deserves to be reinstalled as a classic of the Weimar cinema of Germany and as one of the great silent-era films.
My best guess, though, is that it doesn’t fit into easy generic boxes. The director has drawn on German expressionism in all those long shadows and canted framings, while the dark bob sported by its female antagonist seems to recall the flapper stylishness of Brooks, yet the editing is more reminiscent of Soviet filmmaking, with its bold conjunctions of images in an often fast-flowing montage. The way these images are put together here is a wonder — there’s a particularly strong sequence near the end charting one character’s growing desperation and madness — but right from the start, as the young man (Fritz Genschow) arrives at the port and images of the industrial squalor are cut in with his expressive face, there’s a strong sense of style in play.
The story is one dealing with underclasses struggling within a decaying society, poor men and women doing what they need to make ends meet. The first minutes of the film are all shot at street level, the level of the old man (Paul Rehkopf) begging outside a shop, and show shoes and legs and the passing bellies of those doing better in life. The trade of prostitutes is suggested merely by the familiarity of their shoes and stockinged legs as they pass back and forth, stopping and turning occasonally, and by one sequence in a cafe of a particularly corpulent elderly gentleman catching a glimpse of a lady’s boots as he reads a tragic story in the newspaper. As it happens, this is the framing story for the film, and we cut back to find out more about this small item buried deep in the news, which involves the old man, the young man and the mysterious woman (Lissy Arna), all of whom are just desperate for a way to lighten their lives.
It wouldn’t be fair to say there’s no hope in the film, but there’s also a realistic sense that things may not always work out for everyone, and that’s sustained throughout the running time. And yet it’s not depressing exactly: the story is too controlled and the acting too precise. There’s a bit of melodramatic affect in the acting, and in some of the more! expressive! intertitles, but it’s held in check by the slowly unfolding minutely-focused camerawork. There are significant sequences in which little happens plotwise but characters are revealed through their glances, their small habits, just little observational stuff. It’s the kind of accumulation of detail that makes you understand and feel for these people, and which makes the way things resolve that little bit more deeply resonant.
The screening I attended was particularly enhanced by the musical accompaniment of Stephen Horne, whose multi-instrumental prowess never overwhelmed what was on screen (if only because what was on screen was so captivating). His score added some beautiful extra textures, particularly assured in the dance-club sequences in which Horne effectively suggested the metallic sound of the music box with its notched metal disc. The jaunty music of this sequence in particular seemed to emphasise the desperation with which these marginal characters (beggars, dock workers and criminals) are trying to cling to the Jazz Age in a time of increasing economic hardship.
However bleak the film can be at times, it’s never less than a wonderful evocation of a time period. The central acting performances are all excellent, and I can only hope this film gains greater visibility and acclaim over its next 85 years.
Director Leo Mittler; Writers Willy Döll and Jan Fethke; Cinematographer Friedl Behn-Grund; Starring Lissy Arna, Paul Rehkopf, Fritz Genschow; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 13 October 2013.