A dazzling visual style, plus a typically fine performance from Emil Jannings, distinguish this German silent classic, the story of a tragic sexual triangle among trapeze artists.
Boss Huller (Emil Jannings), a trapeze artist in a carnival, passionately loves his pretty wife and performing partner, Berthe-Marie (Lya de Putti). Artinelli (Warwick Ward), a trapezist on the more prestigious theatrical circuit, invites the couple to team up with him in a new act. Huller
initially does not want to accept the offer, but Berthe-Marie talks him into it. When "The Three Artinellis" open at Berlin's lavish new Winter Garden, they score a huge success. One day, while Huller is out playing cards, the more dashing and handsome Artinelli easily seduces Berthe-Marie. The
next day, at his favorite cafe, Huller becomes enraged when the rumors of his wife's affair get back to him. That evening before the performance, Huller imagines himself allowing his rival to fall to his death during their act, but refrains from following through on his fantasies. Later, however,
he waits for Artinelli in the latter's room. When Artinelli returns from a drunken date with Berthe-Marie and sees the murderous rage in Huller's eyes, he begs and grovels, then pulls out a knife and attacks the other man. There is a struggle during which Huller kills Artinelli. When Huller
returns to his room, Berthe-Marie sees the blood on his hands and becomes hysterical. Huller, as if in a trance, leaves the hotel and turns himself in to the police. Ten years later, in an epilogue, Huller comes up for parole. After telling his story to the warden, he is set free.
In the original, uncut prints of VARIETY, Berthe-Marie was not Huller's wife but his mistress. The opening reels showed him abandoning his real wife to run away with the younger, more attractive, Berthe-Marie.
Legendary German producer Erich Pommer's first choice to direct VARIETY was F. W. Murnau, fresh from the triumph of THE LAST LAUGH (1924). But Pommer reconsidered and--reportedly concluding that Murnau lacked the appropriate passion to film this torrid sexual tale--opted instead for E. A. Dupont,
who at the time was supervising the same kind of live entertainment that was to be depicted in VARIETY. Dupont's initial intention was to shoot the film in a somewhat conventionally static style, but his cinematographer, Karl Freund, convinced him to attempt something more freewheeling.
In the year following its 1925 German premiere, Paramount released the movie in the US, where it met with enormous critical and box-office success, and became the highest grossing German import to date. VARIETY's US popularity motivated several members of its cast and crew to emigrate to
Hollywood, but--with the exception of Karl Freund, who shot DRACULA (1931) and CAMILLE (1936) et al.--none of them were to achieve lasting success there. Dupont wound up making undistinguished B movies; Lya de Putti died at 30; and talkies sent Jannings and his German accent packing.
Often lumped with the great German expressionistic films of its era, VARIETY is more impressionistic than expressionistic; less concerned with psychology than it is attracted to sensation. Rarely, if ever, has the almost delirious gaiety of circus and vaudeville been captured so imaginatively.
Freund's camera defies conventional film grammar--and gravity--with audacious regularity: at one point it even swings from a trapeze. In 1939, Freund characterized VARIETY's camerawork as "an original sourcebook of the lying-on-the-stomach school of photography," and attributed much of its
ingenuity to "necessity, owing to the cramped quarters in the Berlin Winter Palace, where the picture was made." The film's effectiveness is also enhanced by some of the snappiest and most inspired editing of the period.
One of VARIETY's key metaphorical moments is enacted in the midst of a wildly happy group celebration when Huller literally throws Berthe-Marie across the room into Artinelli's arms, a foreshadowing of things to come. Another example of the kind of shorthand in which the silent cinema excelled:
Huller is apprised of the central sexual situation not by word of mouth but by a telltale drawing left on a cafe tablecloth by a departed customer. It depicts Artinelli embracing Berthe-Marie as a horned Huller sits off to one side, with all three points of the triangle clearly labeled by name.
VARIETY's last two shots are particularly memorable. The penultimate shot shows Huller raising his head in close-up after he has received his pardon, the expression on his pain-ridden face a bit bewildered, but tentatively, touchingly hopeful. The final shot shows the prison doors opening outward
to reveal four trees gracefully swaying in the wind against the background of a clear sky. This poetic shot is lovely in its own right. Taken in context, it is profoundly moving. (Nudity.)
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- Review: A dazzling visual style, plus a typically fine performance from Emil Jannings, distinguish this German silent classic, the story of a tragic sexual triangle among trapeze artists. Boss Huller (Emil Jannings), a trapeze artist in a carnival, passionately l… (more)