Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927)

When I need my fix of 1920s/early-30s human grotesquerie, I know who to turn to: the Austrians. Films like Greed (1924) and M (1931) aren’t just terrific art, they’re freak-shows: displaying up close and personal some of the supreme low-lifes of the early screen. Some of the men and women in these films are ugly, and some aren’t; but they have a rot deep down inside of them and it isn’t pretty.

Austrian director G.W. Pabst’s The Love of Jeanne Ney stars two very likeable and lovely young people, actually. I doubt they will be the actors you remember most. Uno Henning plays Andreas, a Bolshevik; Édith Jéhanne plays Jeanne, daughter of a French national conducting business in the Crimea. The two have already fallen in love when Russian Revolution begins, forcing Jeanne to flee to Paris, and encouraging Andreas, convictions aside, to eventually follow.

This is not Pabst’s most famous film. That would be Pandora’s Box, the legendary and well-loved silent from 1929, starring Louise Brooks. Like Pandora’s Box, The Love of Jeanne Ney examines the extremes to which people will go for the sake of love—or perhaps sex. Unlike the later film, however, Jeanne Ney has as its centerpiece a pair of goodhearted people in honest-to-goodness true love. It’s a step down. Andreas and Jeanne kind of bored me.

I wonder if they bored Pabst. The Love of Jeanne Ney is almost fidgety with all its shifts of angle and lighting and extreme close-ups—all well-executed, mind you, by cinematographers Robert Lachand Fritz Arno Wagner, but at times, a bit too much.

And there’s a bigger problem with Jeanne Ney: its supporting actors steal all the thunder. If you’re any kind of silent movie fan (and really, why else would you be reading this?) you’ll know two of them well. Fritz Rasp plays Khalibiev, the thieving, murdering war profiteer, and villain of the film. And Jeanne’s poor, blind cousin, Gabrielle, is played by Brigitte Helm, the Metropolis robot herself, in only her second role. (Rasp was one of her many co-stars in Metropolis; the bulk of his scenes having only recently been rediscovered and restored).

Rasp, whose profile has always reminded me of a shark’s, is in typical silent-era form here: vile and predatory. His Khalibiev is indirectly responsible for several tragedies in Jeanne’s life, and his appearance in Paris bodes ill for her, Gabrielle, and Gabrielle’s father, Raymond Ney (Adolf E. Licho), a private detective in need of money.

Helm was in her early 20s in 1927. Her Gabrielle seemed a lot younger than that to me, but she’s still old enough to fall in love with Khalibiev, who plans to marry her and dispose of her in short order. The couple’s relationship is the focal point of the film’s best scenes, including two in which Gabrielle is treated with immense cruelty. None of the nasty deeds Khalibiev commits will sink him more firmly in the turbid depths than his destruction of sweet, trusting, loyal, sightless Gabrielle. That’s why she’s there.

Licho, as Raymond Ney, plays another oily individual we’d like to see dispatched. His enthusiasm for his daughter’s engagement is almost pimp-like—at best, it’s incautious. Even a half-decent detective could see through Khalibiev’s seedy act, so most likely, Raymond just doesn’t want to. He’s preoccupied anyway. He has been hired to recover a stolen gem, worth an immense finder’s fee. So immense that he fantasizes about receiving it. In a moment reminiscent of ZaSu Pitts’ money-clutching Trina in Greed, Raymond pantomimes the receiving and counting of the imaginary bills. First furtively, then fanatically he does this; Pasbt speeding up the film to emphasize the detective’s building madness. It is a disturbing scene, terminated when Raymond clutches his wall safe like an erotic object.

Characters like these, in scenes like those, serve the same function the elaborate camerawork does: to generate tension in a film that somehow lacks it. By sheer volume of emotion, they achieve that goal. The last half-hour of Jeanne Ney may well suck you in, as it did me, simply because you’ve been put through so much along the way. So when you’re left following the fugitive Andreas and Jeanne on their flight to redemption, you can at least feel like you’re witnessing part of something big, even though their own story isn’t that interesting, or even the most interesting one in the movie they’re in.

Like a lot of films of its type, The Love of Jeanne Ney is cynical. Those with power do not use it wisely; those in authority are unfit for it. Those who appear to be in love most likely aren’t. In such a film, you’d think a couple bonded by honest emotion would be more compelling. And yet, it’s not so. They’re too pretty, too straight; and the ghouls, too fascinating.

Where to find The Love of Jeanne Ney:
The Love of Jeanne Ney (Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney) is available on DVD through Kino International.

1 comment:

  1. I got here while researching a film history project, though it doesn't help me it was a very interesting read!