Bright Lights Film Journal

The Sweet Smell of Asphalt: Discovering Joe May’s 1929 Masterwork

“Amann’s sexuality in Asphalt has little in common with the chilled porcelain passivity of stars like Dietrich and Garbo . . .”

Anyone infatuated with silent film — like me — is always on the lookout for that one pre-talkie film that will win over the unconverted, and I think I’ve found a mighty fine contender in Joe May’s 1929 film, Asphalt, recently released as a region 1 disc by Kino.

Asphalt was shot right on the cusp of the sound film’s emergence in Germany; 1930 would see the release of von Sternberg’s first sound film, The Blue Angel, photographed by Asphalt‘s lensman, Günther Rittau. Watching May’s film, it’s easy to imagine hearing its characters talking, but with Rittau’s fluid camerawork and the astonishing naturalism of the acting, one can only imagine such a film being made maybe ten to fifteen years later as a very tightly conceived Hollywood noir. It would take the American film industry that long to recover — in the face of the technical strictures of sound — the visual and dramatic sophistication on display in Asphalt(with exception being made for the best of von Sternberg’s Hollywood films).

Noir elements are certainly there in Asphalt‘s sleekly designed storyline, in which five characters get caught in a mesh of crime and sex. Gustav Frölich (of Metropolis) is Albert Holk, an upright young traffic cop whose safe, well-defined life becomes upended by a sexual clash of wills with an uncommonly beautiful member of the demimonde played by Betty Amann. Her Else is a dedicated thief not above using her body to get herself out of a jam, and when Else pushes said body up against Holk, a repressed good boy still living with his parents, Holk goes down like a jazz age Don José.

Attempting to haul Else to the station after stumbling upon her foiled jewel heist, Albert only manages to get himself hauled into the sack by Else, who makes him forget all about proper booking procedure. As the totally undone Albert returns home to fret about dereliction of duty, a post-coital Else languorously lights a cigarette and realizes that the cop was kind of hot. What the hell, she thinks the next day, and sends him a box of cigars. Reconnoitering midst angry denials from Albert, they fall into a clutch once again. This time it’s love. Disaster then comes knocking in the form of Else’s politico boyfriend, who is built like a Kelvinator. A bloody, knockdown fight ensues, one of the roosters gets bonked, and somebody’s going to take the fall . . .

You have to admire Asphalt‘s nimbleness of tone, which can shift from high-keyed melodrama to near romantic comedy in a blink. The dark shadows of German Expressionism certainly lurk in the stairwell of the Holts’ apartment house. Implicit in the shadows are the hard times of Germany’s post-WWI depression. The Holks, like Professor Rath in The Blue Angel live precariously on the lower rungs of the middle class, but they’re well fed and comfortable. On the job, Albert the traffic cop stands in his concrete island of well-being, joyfully controlling the chaos of traffic with its dented bumpers and distended rage, but of course the control and the order are an illusion.

Similarly, the city at night is lively and full of fun, but merely scratch at the asphalt and crime oozes out. A brief sequence, with Hans Albers1 as a master pickpocket, details the swift lifting of money from a matron’s purse as a crowd watches a young girl model hosiery in a department store window; it acts as a preamble to Albert’s stumble into the underworld, where the self-satisfied German bourgeoisie, more than once, has gotten unbuttoned and ravaged by a girlish denizen of the lower depths. The Blue Angel seems the model for the concept, but Asphalt was there before it. So was F. W. Murnau’s 1922 Phantom, in which a man-child falls headlong into crime in order to retain the favors of a whore.2

May favors a light touch. For example, there’s the business of cigars. When Albert lurches home from his seduction, filled with remorse over his failure as a cop, his father, who is also on the force, tenderly asks him if anything is wrong. The old man, never without a stogie himself, is clearly eager for reassurance, and, at Albert’s unconvincing avowal that all is well, thrusts a fresh cigar in his son’s face, as if to say, “We’re both men here, we take life as it comes and then forget it all with a good smoke.” Come Sunday morning Else’s gift arrives, a whole gift-wrapped box of fine cigars, and it’s a funny moment, a sly stab at maleness that resonates with the elder Holk’s emotional ineptitude.

But it’s Albert Holk’s emotional ineptitude, his delayed maturity, that turns the film’s action into a brief roundelay of romantic confusion until it brushes up against darker scenes of despair and violence. The apparent incompatibility of Else, the unrepentant thief, and Albert, the dutiful son and cop, is the stuff of screwball comedy. Yet here we are on the same mean streets that Fritz Lang’s characters stalk in Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and M., both films unsettling visions of Germany’s mutating zeitgeist. On the other hand, if any polemical residue still clings to films like Blue Angel or Phantom — their literary sources may have been trying to satirize what they saw as Germany’s socio-cultural immaturity — it evaporates in Asphalt. May’s film is a fascinating mixture of that prevailing morbidity in German filmmaking and of a lighter intent — one less likely to whack us on our psychic kneecaps.

Joe May’s visual storytelling is so adroit that you can forget how sparse the dialog in the titles actually is. Perhaps some titles have been lost, but you don’t need them anyway. Acting in silent film had, by 1929, become refined to such a degree that it’s hard not to recite the hoary contention that the coming of sound was a setback for the art of cinema. Where spoken dialog may actually have proved a boon to a complex thriller like Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), its adoption for a simple film like Asphalt would have burdened it with the early technology’s tinny reproduction of the actors’ strained and unnatural elocution. A sound film demands a totally silent set, and Rittau’s active, roving camera would have been replaced by that era’s solution: a static camera operated by a sweating cameraman in a muffled black box. That von Sternberg troubleshot such limitations so successfully in Blue Angel is something of a miracle.

In Asphalt there are no cabaret songs sublimating the treachery of desire. 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. In the scene at the jewelry store, as the owner gets fleeced by Amann, the actor playing his son observes the proceedings suspiciously, and his face flickers with doubt and just a touch of contempt for his father’s gullibility, yet these feelings are more revealed on his face than semaphored from it. The complex and furious love duet of Else and Albert demands fewer than half a dozen dialog titles — the rest is sung in the eyes and the gestures.

May obviously knew exactly what he wanted, having had the advantage of directing films since 1911 — thereby helping to bring about a Germanic tradition of filmmaking that would hone its craft to rarefied levels of expressive grandeur. Supposedly, he gave a young Fritz Lang his start. Yet what happened to Joe May? Like his compatriots Lang and Murnau, he left Germany before the war and found work in Hollywood, but he never found another project like Asphalt. Out of all his work in Hollywood, he is best remembered, if at all, for The Invisible Man Returns (1940).

Aside from May’s prodigious filmmaking technique, the big discovery here is Betty Amann, whose Else must be one of the most sexually aggressive females in cinema history. Her seduction of Albert is less seduction than physical assault — she literally jumps his bones, locking her legs around the middle of him in a scissors’ hold, which then segues into a full body grind against the resisting policeman. It’s no wonder Asphalt was censored. Accessorized with large powerful eyeballs and a long lithe body, Amann’s sexuality in Asphalt has little in common with the chilled porcelain passivity of stars like Dietrich and Garbo. Even Louise Brooks didn’t get down to business with Amann’s alacrity.

But Amann’s outsized erotic moments are not the whole story. The quiet moments, the transformative ones, count even more. Else begins as a hardened, manipulative female who must make the difficult crossing to the loving and caring place where she may become The Good Woman. Witness her redemptive gaze at a tousled, stricken Albert (below), and you believe she’s made it.

In this film, in or out of closeup, Betty Armann has the presence, the aura, of a star. Lighting a cigarette, addressing an envelope, walking into a room — all are quietly charged with character and nuance. A touching bit of business occurs when Albert grabs his hat to leave Else’s apartment after returning the box of cigars: Else grabs the hat’s brim as Albert clutches it at waist level, and with a knowing grace, pulls the hat and Albert toward her and the inevitable embrace. It’s the kind of gestural metaphor that looms large in a silent picture but that, in a talkie, would likely be subservient to the dialog and thereby smothered. And when Else appears suddenly in the film’s penultimate scene dressed in black, her pale face — framed by cloche, hair, and high collar — is nearly as emblematic of some obscure feminine archetype as Louise Brooks’ startling appearance draped in funeral attire in Pandora’s Box (1928).3

But Amann never became a star. Maybe the studios worried about their sets spontaneously combusting or visible hard-ons straining at the gabardine of a costar. Betty’s career arc resembled Louise Brooks’ in one respect: just like Brooksie, who exited filmland in a Republic western starring John Wayne, Amann appeared in a B-western near the end. In Old Mexico (1938) featured Hopalong Cassidy and Gabby Hayes. Two more films in 1939 and 19434 and she was gone. She died in Westport, Connecticut, in 1990, at the age of 84.

In Asphalt, Amann is well paired with Gustav Frölich. Anyone familiar only with Frölich’s performance in Lang’s Metropolis (1927), where he mostly ran deliriously about in a pair of knickers and gesticulated wildly, will be surprised at his range here. When we first see him as Albert Holk, in his traffic cop uniform, he’s the glory of Aryan youth: tidy, polished, and rosy-cheeked — a Hummel figurine just begging for a tumble from the shelf. As Amann peels away the layers of good son and dutiful cop, the uniform is discarded and so is some of the grooming. Emotionally naked, Frölich goes from anger to tenderness, and then to craven denial when faced with the consequences of a violent act.

It all comes out in the wash, as they say. Albert’s parents and his sheltered home life play no small part in this drama. Although the DVD’s credits list Albert’s father (Albert Steinrück) as chief of police, he appears semi-retired in the film. Constantly seated at the dinner table, he’s either savoring his cigar or dozing. Meanwhile mother (Else Heller) dotes on her son and worries about his sudden late hours. Both of these actors are superb in the third-act crisis. Their underplayed reaction (below) to their son’s confession is spot on in its gradations of disbelief, fear, and grief, with the entire scene lit by a single light source.

Like the performances, Rittau’s lighting and photography conspire to make this film a nearly flawless experience. Kino’s presentation of Asphalt, from a restoration made by The Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, is more than watchable, but don’t expect the astonishing resolution displayed by other recent silent releases like Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and Phantom, the prints of which were struck from extant negatives. Asphalt‘s print is a good one, clearly early generation, but however fine its gray scale, it’s battered and probably not complete. The full extent of Amann’s bold sexuality, which I’m assuming was the reason for the film’s censorship issue, is hopefully restored here, but there are signs that at least one plot thread still dangles because of missing footage.

We first encounter Else’s formidable boyfriend, known to us only as “the Consul” (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), off in Paris, where a sequence shows us that, he too, is up to nefarious deeds under cover of respectability. One minute, dressed to the nines, he exits the Hotel d’Opera, greeted as the General Consul, the next he’s changed into workman’s duds and officiating at a caper. It’s all lovingly detailed — the thieves are disguised as utility workers fixing pipes below the street just outside, hmm, a bank — and it’s clear that the Consul is after certain papers in a safety deposit box. But we’re unprepared for these goings-on, and nothing comes of them later. After snagging what he needs from the bank vault, the big guy changes once again and hops a Berlin-bound plane to rendezvous with his sweetie and ultimate disaster. Obviously, something’s missing, but whatever it is, we don’t care.

We care about Albert and Else, who, like the Consul, are caught in roles that demand they be something they’re not. Albert’s not the incorruptible cop, and Else’s not really the irredeemable brass cupcake. The man is revealed a boy (strong and moral then weak and selfish), and the girl a woman (impulsive and narcissistic then purposed and selfless). It’s a romantic parable not unfamiliar to modern audiences, but how sweetly do Asphalt‘s boy and girl manage to find love midst the angst-filled shadows cast by German filmmaking between the wars.

  1. Albers’ role here is cameo-sized but memorable. He would play Dietrich’s third act lover in The Blue Angel, cuckolding Rath (Emil Jannings) and thereby setting off that film’s final tragic chain of events. []
  2. Murnau’s film, based on a novel by Gerhart Hauptmann, has just been released as a stellar DVD by Flicker Alley. The strange protagonist is a government clerk, who is also a mediocre poet. From afar, he falls in love with the fourteen-year-old daughter of a rich family. He imagines the young prostitute as his beloved’s doppelganger. []
  3. Considering the power of the female image in various German productions of this period, it seems the filmmakers — Lang, Murnau, von Sternberg, Pabst, and May — were still chewing on Goethe’s concept of the “eternal feminine” yet spitting out inverted versions of it. Instead of vessels of purity that inspire men of action to great deeds, the women in their films often waylay the men and pervert their action. But there are complexities or, rather, a dialectic. In Metropolis, Maria actually is an image of Goethe’s ideal, but then of course her robotic double is the femme fatale, as is the prostitute double in Murnau’s Phantom, with the protagonist’s teenaged feminine ideal just a dream. Amann’s Else contains both the ideal and the bad egg. Movies have been playing with this duality in female characters for decades. Did it all begin in the UFA studios, or with Goethe? []
  4. Betty’s very last appearance was a bit part in Edgar Ulmer’s 1943 film, The Isle of Forgotten Sins, aka Monsoon, which is available on a sub-par quality DVD from Alpha Video. []