17 August 2017 | kekseksa
a minor classic of the mixed style 1930-1931
This film has a story that is not in the least original. It had been one before 1931 and it has done many times since - the man who wants to commit suicide, hires someone to kill him and then changes his mind. The first occurrence I know of is in the Jules Verne story Les Tribulations d'un chinois en Chine in 1879 which appears to have been the inspiration for Ernst Neubach who provided the idea for the script (whether he actually wrote a play on the subject seems uncertain). Much the same idea had already been used in a US film, Douglas Fairbanks' Flirting with Fate in 1916. The strength of this film is not therefore in its story nor in the writing in itself (which is relatively not very special) so much as in the general organization of the film (mise en scène, sound, scenery, acting style) which is absolutely outstanding.
To appreciate how good it is, just look at a version for the same story that Neubach himself directed in 1952 (Man lebt nur einmal). Despite the fact that Neubach employed set designer Emil Hasler who had worked on some classics of the Weimar period (inc. M and The Blue Angel) and on the excellent 1943 film Münchhausen, it is a very, very ordinary and uninteresting farce and, frankly, painfully unfunny. It was simply impossible in fifties Germany to create the style of the brilliant pre-war years (as Fritz Lang would also discover on his return). Neubach had actually made the film in exile in France too in 1949 as On demande un assassin with Fernandel but this I have not seen.
This is not a silent film but belongs to a special category of film for which as far as I know we have no name - films made in the thirties that employed sound (often, as here, in very interesting and inventive ways) not primarily for the purpose of dialogue (which is often minimal) or as incidental score but as an element of mise en scène (a part simply of the general ambiance of the film) while still retaining the visual values of silent films. Apart from the entirely exceptional case of Chaplin (Modern Times) this was a style unknown in the US - Von Sternberg is to some extent an exception - and US films that hesitate involuntarily between "silent" and "sound" are simply badly made films (poor sound quality, stilted over-enunciated dialogue, too much dialogue etc).
But there are some very fine and important examples pf this "mixed style" both in France (Clair's 1931 À nous la liberté is a perfect example as well as being an influence on Chaplin) and in Germany. The style is associated to some extent with the great directors of the silent era (Jean Epstein for instance) but also, more surprisingly, with a younger generation who had only just started making films at the end of that era (like the Siodmak or Clair or Machaty in Czechoslovakia) and in some cases with film-makers who had never made a silent film (Jean Vigo for instance in France). It can also be observed less markedly but to some extent in the great classics of these years (M, The Blue Angel, La Chienne). It is a style, in other words, that produced some of the greatest masterpieces of cinema.
Robert and Curt Siodmak and Billy Wilder as a team, until their enforced departure for the US, proved unsurprisingly real artists in the genre, having also produced the wonderful silent masterpiece Menschen am Sonntag the year before this.
Even if we are missing the beginning of the film explaining why the central character wishes to kill himself, this film still stands as a fine example of this mixed style of the early thirties. Beautiful expressionistic sets (something of a revival by this time in Germany), mildly stylized acting (in fact, more accurately a typical mix of the stylized and the naturalistic), superbly ironic use of sound.
Had the rise of Hitler not destroyed he German film industry, the style might have survived as a natural bridge between the golden age of European film in the late twenties and the "new wave" of the sixties. It does to a certain extent in French "poetic realism" (early Renoir, Carné etc) and in the films of Sacha Guitry but in Germany it died the death while the Germans, Austrians and Hungarians fleeing to the US had no choice but to accept the more banal strictures of US "realist" style.
As is also the case with silent films, later ill-advised "sound" remakes of "mixed style" films are nearly always inferior, and often vastly inferior, to the originals.