In Berlin, a policeman called Holk is summoned to a jeweller’s shop, where a beautiful young woman has tried to steal a diamond. En route to the police station, the woman takes Holk back to her apartment on the pretext of collecting some papers and ends up seducing him. Soon he finds himself caught between his duty and the woman he is falling in love with.
Asphalt was one of the last films of the silent German Expressionist era – like Fritz Lang, director Joe May soon made the move to Hollywood, although failed to find the success there that Lang did. In Asphalt, May sets a simplistic morality tale against the backdrop of modern, bustling city – there are none of the political overtones of other films of the time, but the picture remains both a technical triumph and a touching story of doomed love.
May opens the film with a bravura display of the cinematic techniques that were being pioneered at the time, capturing the industrial fury of modern Berlin. The director overlays frames of traffic as cars thunder through the city and performs some dramatic crane shots over the crowds and across the streets, all part of a massive set at the renowned UFA studios. Eventually, he comes to focus on just four characters – dedicated, hardworking cop Holk, his loving parents with whom he lives, and Mutter, the sultry would-be jewel thief who steals his heart.
In terms of events, very little actually happens in Asphalt – in a modern picture, the entire 90 minute running time would probably just be compressed into the first act. So it’s a testament to the skill of both the actors and the director that the film is quite as watchable as it is. Else Heller, playing Mutter, is by turns cunning, sultry and fragile – her ambiguous performance is played largely with her eyes, and we are never sure if we are watching the ‘real’ Mutter, or just an act. Albert Steinrück is a more straight-forward, stoic hero, but the haunted, terrified look on his face after he returns home after committing a terrible act towards the end makes for one of the film’s most striking moments.
May’s direction remains impressive throughout, although the more dramatic technical trickery is largely kept for the opening sequences. Nevertheless, the lighting, editing and camerawork help create an atmosphere charged with a sense of doomed inevitability, and the scenes between Heller and Steinrück carry an undeniable erotic charge. For all its innovation, Asphalt is obvious a film of its era – the only dialogue is supplied by occasional inter-titles, and a melodramatic, sometime rather inappropriate score provides the soundtrack. Within two years, Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking masterpiece M would make the likes of Asphalt seem positively quaint by comparison, but this remains a little known but important part of cinema history.
[Asphalt is the latest addition to Eureka’s superb Masters of Cinema DVD series. Other classic titles in the series include Murnau’s Tartuffe, Kurosawa’s The Idiot, Shindo’s Onibaba and Lang’s Spione and Metropolis.]
Born in Joseph Otto Mandel in Vienna, May was one of the founding figures of German cinema. May began directing in 1911 after working in operetta and set up his own production house, helping to establish Fritz Lang as a scriptwriter. May was a prolific director at the famous UFA studios, making films such as Asphalt and Homecoming, although he was more interested in crowd-pleasing pictures than the more groundbreaking work of Lang or F.W. Murnau.
Like Lang, May headed to Hollywood when Hitler began his rise to power. In 1937 he made the moody thriller Confession, starring Basil Rathbone, but subsequently found himself stuck making B-movies for Universal. The most notable were The Invisible Man Returns, House of the Seven Gables and the comedy Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore, starring a young Robert Mitchum. May retired from filmmaking in 1950 and died four years later in Los Angeles.