Joe May 1929 / Germany
It’s probably the nightmare of most directors to only be remembered for one movie. It’s probably fair to say however that Joe May, the Austrian director who was born Joseph Otto Mandl, probably wouldn’t have minded that it’s the extraordinary Asphalt that he is remembered for.
Before and during the first world war May learned his trade making a string of detective thrillers for Continental Kunstfilm GmbH in Berlin before founding his own production company. He made a large number of movies – mainly pulp thrillers – which were very popular in their time and made him a rich man, although like many other German artists he migrated to Hollywood in the 1930’s to escape the Nazis. Most of his films have now more or less faded from view – with the exception of Asphalt.
As the title suggests, the action involves streets, and it’s the crowded streets of Berlin in the late 1920’s. The Weimar republic was in full swing and Berlin was a post war melting pot. Wealth, poverty, the remains of the Austro-Hungarian empire, black marketeering, decadence and extremism – all existed side by side and provided a rich background to May’s unique film. The opening montage of the movie is a long wandering shot of Berlin, along streets crowded with people and cars. This is what Berlin looked like before the age of the Nazis – a bustling metropolis that only fifteen years later would lie in ruins. The story could hardly be simpler. A young traffic policeman is called to arrest a young woman caught stealing jewels. As in so many other movies he falls in love with her, and eventually kills her jealous criminal lover in a bout of animal savagery.
The secret of the movie’s extraordinary effect is the two main characters, who are such polar opposites. Gustav Frolich plays the young policeman, tall, blond, blue eyed, morally scrupulous and intensely proud of the uniform he wears. Betty Amman is the thief – a beautiful, licentious, lying reprobate, with a hypnotic gaze and a selfish streak a mile wide. In spite of any sort of logic – why would we need logic?- these two fall quite implausibly and madly in love. The fascination of the movie lies in watching the young man struggling against an overwhelming attraction which goes against everything he stands for, whilst the young woman is torn between her equal passion for him and her realization that she will undoubtedly corrupt and destroy him.
Film noir might not have been officially invented until the 1940’s, but it would be difficult to call Asphalt anything else. It is dark, callous, erotic and strange. The way that Betty Amman literally jumps on top of Frolich when he tries to arrest her, locks her legs around his waist and whilst he valiantly struggles, forces him to look into her enormous limpid eyes until he is subdued, is one of the strangest moments in silent film that you will ever see.
The story is simple, but the subtext is always weird and disturbing, and even if the same plot exists in a thousand other movies, there is no other film quite like it. When it was released it was popular, but the reviews were quite bad, and the movie probably appeals to a modern audience precisely for the reasons critics in 1929 disliked it – namely that the plot is largely uninteresting and the style and peculiar atmosphere are far more interesting.
It would be easy to draw an analogy between the characters and the way Germany was being politically corrupted even though it is unlikely that that is what May intended. Probably his intention was simply to make another one of his popular thrillers, but in Asphalt he somehow stumbled across something quite rare and powerful. And how anyone could resist Betty Amman’s stare is a mystery.