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Gustav Fr+Ýhlich, best known as the young protagonist of Metropolis, stars as Holk, a strait-laced traffic cop who has the simple task of escorting a diamond thief to the police station. However, the thief is the exotic and beautiful Else (played by Betty Amann), which makes the task far from simple. The stage is thus set for a scandalous turn of events, and the drama is made all the more exciting thanks to the dynamic photography of G+-+nther Rittau (The Blue Angel) and the equally impressive sets of Erich Kettelhut (Metropolis).
From its amazing opening sequence of human and vehicular traffic sweeping through a nighttime cityscape entirely created inside the Ufa film factory, Asphalt marks a late addition to the eye-catching, mind-bending artistry of the German Expressionist cinema of the '20s. Released in March 1929, when silents were on the way out, until recently it was just a title, and the source of a few grabby stills, in the film history books. In this most complete restoration yet, it stands as the ultimate "street film," a genre prized for bravura artifice and potent allegory. In such urban symphonies, the cinema was simultaneously defining and reimagining the essence of modernity in images both hypnotically dark and ablaze with shattered light.
The story is a simple one, but told with psychological subtlety and strikingly fluid camerawork and editing. A young cop (Gustav Fröhlich, the hero of Metropolis) with rectitude in his veins apprehends a sneak thief (Betty Amann) in the act of stealing a diamond, then fails to turn her in. There's a gratifying mutuality to their seduction; although the lady's tiger-like leap upon her captor is astonishingly feral, she's soon as vulnerable and perplexed in their relationship as he is. A subplot involving her longtime lover, a master criminal (Hans Adelbert von Schlettow), eventually intersects with their love affair. Up to the very end--which somewhat anticipates Robert Bresson's Pickpocket--we can't be sure who's going to be sacrificed to save whom.
Director Joe May was no auteur on the order of Fritz Lang or F.W. Murnau; it's hard to locate an artistic personality in his movie. But he and cinematographer Günther Rittau had a state-of-the-art camera dolly to play with, making the German ideal of "the unfettered camera" a freewheeling reality. Amann is beguiling as a Louise Brooks knockoff, an ambulatory white fur under a cloche hat who evolves into a dark, hieratic figure of Fate. --Richard T. Jameson
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What makes this film so intense & dazzling is the cinematography, which captures the shadowed energy of the city at night -- but even more than that, it's the astonishing performance by Betty Amann as the leading lady/femme fatale. She's a vision of dark-eyed, silken slinkiness who reveals an almost feral lust in her attempts to seduce the young police officer. She not only throws herself at him, she literally throws herself ON him, clawing at his hair & grinding her body into his with stunning ferocity. Yet she also shows a remarkable tenderness in later scenes, often with almost imperceptible expressiveness. Her eyes are absolutely incredible!
There are only a handful of title cards, but the acting & direction tell you everything you have to know. The score is often jaunty, even jolly, providing a mocking counterpoint to the increasingly corrupt goings-on. It's melodrama boiled down to its essence, a thick, black, sickly-sweet syrup that draws flies to the moral decay of the players. Highly recommended!