Thursday 12 January 2017

On Brigitte Helm ( and Jean Gabin) - Barrie Pattison tracks down the work of the Weimar star (and an early appearance by another star)

Brigitte Helm
How’s this for a trip to the far shores of film freaking? A large slice of the generation ahead of mine had decided that Brigitte Helm was the most alluring female on the planet and, after I saw Metropolis at the age of twelve, a bit of that leached through to me.

I was vaguely aware that she had made other films but they were shown in countries which had Cinematheques and serious enthusiasts. In fact there were nearly forty of them. She had been paired with an extraordinary set of leading men - Jean Gabin, Hans Albers, Ivan Mozjoukine, Joseph Schildkraut, Jan Kiepura, Gustav Diessl and Gustav Fröhlich, rolling over the transition to sound without pausing. 

A few of the films were brilliant - Hanns Schwarz’ 1929 Die wunderbare Lüge der Nina Petrowna and George Wilhelm Pabst’s 1932 L’atalantide - and she was brilliant all on her own in a few more - Pabst’s 1928 Abwege, Karl Hartl’s 1934 Gold and Marcel L'Herbier’s 1928 L’Argent with her in the silver lamé number winding around financier Pierre Alcover to extract his secret during his murderous rage.

Now some of the rest are bubbling to the surface, I enjoyed Karl Hartl’s 1932 Die Gräfin von Monte-Christo (twice re-made in Hollywood as The Countess of Monte Cristo) so my enthusiasm mounted when Gloria, one of her Gabin films, turned up here on YouTube. The German copy was fair but the piece was untranslated in a language where my peak achievement occurred in Vienna ordering two hot dogs, a bun and a cup of coffee.

Jean Gabin and Brigitte Helm
However as a reward for my patience, the French dual language version appeared in a murky tinted copy with dodgy subtitles You can find it if you click here I homed in on that and disillusion set in. Gabin is not one of those intrepid aviator heroes of the day (think Henry Victor in L’Argent or Jimmy Cagney in Ceiling Zero). His character is closer to side kick parts offered to Frank McHugh. He gets to play a womanising navigator with a drunk scene. Gabin’s only in a couple of scenes where Helm appears. The lead is uninvolving but durable, brilliantined Andre Luget who tries hard to be imposing with no success.  Helm, who appears to speak faultless French, is notably more animated in German with her Metropolis co-star Gustav Fröhlich a much more commanding intrepid bird man. The French version runs 6 minutes longer at 1h 27m Note one difference - Luguet flies into a Paris complete with Eiffel Tower montage while Fröhlich is greeted with a banner that says “Welcom in heimat.” 

Gustave Fröhlich
Long serving director Hans Behrendt, whose career started with the 1923 Alt Heidelberg, is unable to make the central triangle situation compelling and the long distance flight generates only mild suspense. The piece is full of awkward transitions where an unrelated cut-away fails to cover the difference between the shots either side. Brigitte is not even attractively filmed, though she manages to generate a few characteristic moments on the dance floor or in big close up.

Peter de Herzog’s biography of Helm had her dissatisfied with the films they delivered her and eyeing the rise of the Nazis with unease, quitting at the age of twenty nine to be a housewife in Switzerland.

Well you can’t win them all.

Editor's note: Sydney supercinephile Barrie spent some recent time exploring the postings on YouTube in his end of year contribution to Defending Cinephilia which you can find if you click here. In his view YouTube "still contains more significant material than has ever been offered here before. There actually is more special interest film available now than ever in my life time, even if no one here appears interested or motivated to use it." 

Editor's further note - Veteran cinephile David Hare writes in response: Two belated replies to Barrie via here. I also very much like Youtube and use it for everything imaginable like grabs for posts here to general viewing. YouTube now also extends to 4K material which is useful for demo-ing our new TV! Among other great things there you can find the complete Gremillon 1929 final silent film, Gardiens de Phare, albeit from a ragged 16mm Brazliian source, not the near pristine Japanese 35mm. But viewable nonetheless. Also, if you don't already have, the astonishing 4 minute fragment from Sternberg's The Case of Lena Smith. Also by way of reply to Barrie's lovely piece on Brigitte Helm above, Pabst's "missing in action" silent Abwege (rough translation The Devious Path) from 1928 with Helm as a society woman who hits the skids as they all seem to do in Pabst.) This is from a very fine restoration by FIlm Museum Wien, and includes a purpose composed score by Oz master of silent scores Elena Kats-Chernin which I like a lot. As a complete non-fan of Pabst (the two Brooks movies excepted) this was quite a discovery for me and hopefulyl will be for others. The movie is not available commercially, only on backchannels from an Arte telecast. Youtube promsises it next month in full as a VOD.

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