Joe May’s German silent film Asphalt (Der Polizeiwachtmeister und die Diamantenelse), made at Ufa Studios in 1929, can be seen as both the last gasp of German Expressionism and the first step on the road to film noir.
A very serious-minded young traffic cop named Albert Holk, straight out of police college (Gustav Fröhlich), arrests a glamorous jewel thief. When she flutters her eyelashes at the jeweller he asks the police to drop the charges but Wachtmeister Holk takes his job very seriously indeed. He is determined not to fall for such cheap tricks and to bring this dangerous menace to society to justice.
The thief, Else Kramer (Betty Amann), uses all of her feminine wiles (and she knows them all) on young Holk. He resists manfully but really he never stands a chance. She persuades him to let her go back to her apartment to get her papers, and after considerable effort she seduces him.
Young Holk is devastated. He has let the side down. Worse than that, he has let his parents down. And his father is a retired policeman. He is filled with shame.
All this is bad enough, but there is worse to come. Else sends him a gift. He goes to her apartment, intending to indignantly return the gift, but he falls for those feminine wiles all over again. And now he is drawn into the noir nightmare world, a journey that will end in murder.
Born in Vienna, Joe May was not one of the big names of German silent cinema but he was prolific and was in fact one of the pioneers, beginning his directing career as early as 1911. He ended his career in the United States after fleeing Germany in the wake of the Nazi takeover. His US movies were all B-movies - he was never able to achieve the same level of success there that he’d enjoyed in Germany.
Metropolis star Gustav Fröhlich makes Holk more interesting and more sympathetic than the synopsis would suggest. He tries his hardest to resist the noir nightmare world but he’s outgunned by the beautiful and glamorous Else.
Betty Amann was an American actress (although born in Germany) who take the same road to German film that Louise Brooks had taken. I have heard it argued that Amann was actually the better actress. That is of course nonsense and she is unable to give her characterisation the depth that Brooks gave to her roles. Having said that, Amann was a fine actress and she really was exceptionally glamorous, she’s perfectly cast and she gives a fine performance. Else is not a one-dimensional femme fatale. She genuinely falls for the naïve but handsome young cop. She starts out seeing him as a ridiculous figure, a clown she can manipulate, but she ends by not only falling in love with him but by seeing him as her chance of redemption.
Albert Steinrück as Holk’s father and Else Heller as his mother give moving performances. Holk’s father has such a high sense of duty that it overrides his own humanity. Else Kramer is a bad girl but she is in some ways more sympathetic - her feelings override her own best interests. The conflict between duty and emotion is the driving force of the story.
This is certainly not full-on Expressionism, but there are subtle hints of the stye in this movie. There is for instance a staircase scene that looks not merely Expressionist but also very film noir. There is plenty of proto-noir in this movie with moody shadows and the exciting but slightly sleazy backdrop of nightlife in Weimar Republic Germany which manages to be as noir as LA in the 40s.
Joe May may not have scaled the heights that German film-makers like Fritz Lang scaled but he was more than a mere journeyman director. Asphalt is stylish and visually arresting. The obvious comparison is going to be with Pabst’s masterpiece Pandora's Box (starring the aforementioned Louise Brooks). Asphalt inhabits similar territory and like Pabst May tones the Expressionism way down, leaving it as a subtle suggestion rather than an overwhelming visual signature.
Asphalt has been released in Region 2 by Eureka in their Masters of Cinema and in Region 1 by Kino. I haven’t seen either of these DVDs so I can’t comment on them.
Asphalt is not in the same league as Pandora's Box or Fritz Lang’s M but it’s not without interest, it’s stylish and entertaining and Betty Amann’s performance is enough to make it a must-see for silent movie fans. Film noir fans will be fascinated by the early hints of that style in this movie. Recommended.