What's new again: E.A. Dupont's Variety

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Emil Jannings plans a kiss of death on Lya De Putti
  • Emil Jannings plans a kiss of death on Lya De Putti
One of my favorite things about teaching a film history class is discovering movies I've never seen while researching the ones on my course list. Case in point, preparing for my upcoming Facets course on James Whale (which you can sign up for here) has led me to the work of German director E.A. Dupont, whom Whale cited as an influence. Dupont was an esteemed figure when Whale started directing movies in 1930; his innovative silent film Variety (1925) was one of the most critically acclaimed movies of its day, and Dupont came to work in Britain, France, and the U.S. on the strength of its reputation. New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall (what a name!) praised it as "the strongest and most inspiring drama that has ever been told by the evanescent shadows," adding "the lighting effects and camera work cause one to reflect that occasionally the screen may be connected with art."

The film's reputation faded over the years, however. By the time Dave Kehr wrote about Variety for the Reader in the 70s or early 80s, he dismissed it as "the textbook example of German expressionism . . . the blatancy that makes it so easy to teach is also its chief drawback as art." I sympathize with Kehr's instinct to reject movies considered textbook examples of anything (enshrining a work as an exemplar of form tends to drain it of its vitality), though I don't agree with his assessment of the film as blatant. What most impresses me about Variety is the nuanced work that Dupont elicits from lead actors Lya De Putti, Warwick Ward, and Emil Jannings. Beneath the film's melodramatic plot about romantic jealousy and betrayal is a sophisticated study of erotic desire; some of Dupont's close-ups of faces overwhelmed by fascination can still inspire shocks of recognition.

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Jannings plays a circus trapeze artist who murders his mistress (De Putti), who's also his performing partner, when he discovers she's cheating on him with another acrobat (Ward). That the other man is younger than him and from a more privileged background (he's in Berlin to perform at the prestigious Winter Garden, not the lowbrow circus) only stokes the character's jealousy. Dupont relies as much as possible on the actors' expressions to convey the burgeoning love triangle. Ward's seduction of De Putti is one of the most fruitful results of Dupont's method. Cutting between Ward's haughty expressions and De Putti's more uninhibited ones, Dupont suggests the exotic appeal a working-class performer would have for an artiste like Ward's Artinelli, and vice versa. The director would go even further in its depictions of taboo eroticism in his British film Piccadilly (1929), which involves an affair between a white nightclub owner and a Chinese dancer in his floor show.

Dupont's forthrightness about sexual attraction has aged much better than his expressionist stylization, although that can be enjoyable too. Working with cinematographer Karl Freund, who'd shot Jannings in F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh and Tartuffe, Dupont realizes the hero's emotional instability through some arrestingly flashy moments. When Jannings's character first realizes he's been made a cuckold, for instance, Dupont executes a rapid 360-degree pan around the barroom where he learns the news. And the climactic trapeze performance, during which Jannings thinks about killing his rival in front of the crowd but then relents, is rich in hyperbolic imagery, such as a creepy, Murnau-worthy frame filled with nothing but applauding hands.

It's easy to see why Variety so inspired Whale: the film's mix of psychological realism and baroque visuals anticipates Whale's own Kiss Before the Mirror (which, not coincidentally, was also shot by Freund), and the grown-up considerations of lust anticipate his Waterloo Bridge. In hindsight, Dupont seems less like an expressionist than a realist who emphasized his observations with expressionist tactics. It would be great if more of his silent work came out of the shadows.

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