by Allan Fish
(Germany 1925 151m) DVD2 (Germany only)
Aka. Die Freudlose Gasse
Down Melchior Alley
p Hirschel Sofar d Georg W.Pabst w Willy Haas novel Hugo Bettauer ph Guido Seeber, Curt Oertel, Robert Lach ed Georg W.Pabst art Hans Sohlne, Otto Erdmann
Asta Nielsen (Maria Lechner), Greta Garbo (Grete Rumfort), Valeska Gert (Frau Greifer), Agnes Esterhazy (Regina Rosenow), Einar Hanson (Lt.Davy), Jaro Furth (Hofrat Rumfort), Henry Stuart (Egon Stirner), Werner Krauss (Geiringer, the butcher), Ronald Garrison (Don Alfonso Canez), Tamara Geva (Lia Leid), Loni Nest (Mariandl), Herthe van Walther (Else), Ilke Grüning (Frau Rosenow), Karl Etlinger (Max Rosenow), Max Kohlhase (Herr Lechner), Mario Cusmich (Col.Irving), M.Raskatoff (Trebitsch),
As I watched the opening credits roll on FilmMuseum’s glorious DVD restoration of Pabst’s silent classic, I noticed the name of Ilka Grüning in the cast, as you will above, and remembered her as one of the refugees in Casablanca. And in anticipation of watching Pabst’s film, knowing the plot well from several viewings of inferior, butchered versions (ranging from a meagre 100m to a barbaric 60), I couldn’t help recall the opening of Curtiz’s Hollywood classic, and the sequence where two British tourists are hoodwinked by a pickpocket, who mutters, hypocritically, “vultures, vultures everywhere.”
For Casablanca c.1942 substitute Vienna just over twenty years earlier, and where there everyone came to Rick’s, here everyone comes to Melchior Alley, a slum thoroughfare where poverty dwells in every doorway, cellar, attic and mouse hole. The two central protagonists are both young women; the first, Grete, works in the office of a lecherous skirt chaser, but can hardly keep herself awake after spending all night queuing for meat from a local butcher, Geiringer (one of the meanest sons of bitches who ever got evicted from under a rock). Her father, desperate for money, cashes in his voluntary redundancy package to make money on the stock markets, has one day of success, but then goes bankrupt, and Grete is left to carry the can and do whatever needs must to survive. Then there’s Maria, daughter to somewhat rougher parents, living in a cellar but in love with Egon, a shady character who wants to marry another for her money.
This one has it all; every cancerous symptom of the poverty-ridden underbelly of Weimar Germany. Sex is, as usual, at the heart of everything, and the selling and trading of meat can easily be seen as a metaphor for the selling of their bodies by girls who would otherwise starve. On one side of the alley there’s the evil butcher, the grinning lecher Geiringer, who gives away choice cuts for quickies in his cellar, while on the other there’s the seemingly upstanding Greifer’s clothes store, a front for the liveliest den of iniquity in Vienna, where the rich come to slum away their lives in mindless hedonism.
Seeing the film now, restored of all but half an hour’s lost footage, as uncensored as possible, though still a somewhat moth-eaten melodrama, the visual aesthetics are hard to fault, with all the shadowy lighting, distorted Expressionist sets with false perspective and askew camera angles one might expect in situ. The performances are also hard to forget, with Krauss inimitably evil and a host of emphatic female turns, with Gert a standout as a truly hysterically nasty Greifer, overacting to joyous effect. At the centre, meanwhile, there’s Nielsen and Garbo, and what a contrast they make. Nielsen was 44 and just about washed up as a star having been probably the first bona fide movie goddess in the world, and certainly too old with her sideways glances to convince as her father’s daughter. It’s perhaps ironic then that she ends up badly, while Garbo, though going through the proverbial wringer, comes through to see light at the end of the dark alley. Here was a star burning ever brighter as Nielsen’s dimmed to black, and when various heels are seen lusting after her, pity them, for what are they but manifestations of the desire felt by the camera for its subject. It wanted her, Pabst wanted her, we wanted her. Pabst wouldn’t get her – Louis B.Mayer would get his gal – but a few years later, a young American actress would make the opposite journey…