by Allan Fish
(Germany 1929 100m) not on DVD
Aka. The Wonderful Lie; Die Wunderbare Lüge der Nina Petrowna
The fourth ten
p Erich Pommer d Hanns Schwarz w Fritz Rotter, Hans Székely ph Carl Hoffmann m Maurice Jaubert art Robert Herlth, Walter Röhrig cos Renée Hubert
Brigitte Helm (Nina Petrowna), Francis Lederer (Lt.Michael Rostof), Warwick Ward (Col.Beranoff), Lya Jan, Ekkehard Arendt, Michael von Newlinsky, Harry Hardt,
How many people have heard of Hanns Schwarz? Not too many, I’d wager, as he’s hardly the first name to roll off the tongue when mentioning the masters of German silent cinema. Not when one can roll off Lang, Murnau, Lubitsch, Pabst, Ruttmann, Wiene and Dupont. I’d venture to say the likes of May, Wegener, Galeen and perhaps even Reinert would get a mention before Schwarz. It’s a travesty, as, if only for this one film, Schwarz deserves a mention in any list of German masters.
The Nina Petrowna of the title is the young mistress to a womanising colonel in pre-revolutionarySt Petersburg. One evening at a nightclub she catches the eye of a young lieutenant, Michael, much to the chagrin of the colonel. When the colonel insists that, if she leaves him for the lieutenant, she’ll go without the trappings – no jewellery, no furs, she does just that and sets up with her handsome lover in a cheap boarding house but, after a while, they cannot afford the rent. He’s not yet got his full lieutenant’s pay through so, when they have their electricity cut off, the lieutenant sets out to find cash by means of a card game involving the colonel. Through his weakness, he’s caught cheating and is on the verge of being shamed and dishonoured, but the colonel makes a proposition to Nina. If she agrees to come back to him and leave Michael, he’ll destroy the evidence that could ruin Michael’s career. She accepts, Michael goes away distraught, but when the colonel arrives to consummate his agreement, he finds Nina has taken poison and lies down in their boudoir.
It’s hardly the freshest of tales, so the fact that Schwarz makes it feel so divine is testament to his craftsmanship. Some of the camerawork here – by Lang regular Carl Hoffmann – is so fluid it’s worthy of Max Ophuls, but the tone, the fatalistic tragic romance tinged with cynicism, is pure Von Stroheim. Note the rose-tinted close-ups of the lovers eyeing each other up over the nightclub floor, the metaphor of the flowers, blooming of wilting, that runs through the film. Writing in the Radio Times guide, David Parkinson makes reference to the legendary final shot of the dead Nina, but better still is the extended sequence early on where Nina and Michael spend the night together but neither uses the bed. She gives up her bedroom for him to sleep outside on the floor, yet he prefers the chair at the foot of her bed. The following morning, the camera pans over to find Nina, slumped against the outside of her own bedroom door, as if guarding her lover like a guard dog.
Nina Petrowna is a film whose narrative whirls in waltz-time to the movements of figures in an ornate clock, where champagne is like mother’s milk and romance is eternal. And it’s helped along by three lovely performances from the principals. It would be easy for Ward to fall into melodramatic stereotype as the villain of the peace, but he makes him a believable adversary with very human jealousies. Lederer is equally perfect as the young lieutenant, especially in the scene in her room where he realises the extent of Nina’s poverty. It’s Helm who dazzles most, though, and for anyone who just saw her frenzied Maria in Metropolis, it’s an epiphany. The scene on the balcony at the end, where she tearfully tosses a rose to her lover’s horse’s feet, only for it to be unseen and left to wilt in the snow, is done in a way that Garbo couldn’t have topped. Indeed, when one considers her work in Metropolis, L’Argent, Alraune and The Love of Jeanne Ney, all for very different silent auteurs, there’s a strong case for naming her German silent cinema’s premier movie goddess.