Scene of Varieté (1925) by Dupont and ensemble Capella Obscura

The 16th edition of the Karlsruhe Silent Film Festival finished a couple of days ago, on the 18th of March: precisely the day before the anniversary of cinema itself. In 1985, indeed, the Lumière Brothers were recording the so-called “first movie of cinema history”. Silent, of course. And here we are, more than one century afterwards, still celebrating those incredible first 20 years of silent cinema. “Silent”, at least if we consider recorded sound, since sound was actually always present, especially concerning voices, noises and live music. This time the music accompaniment has been handled by the ensemble Capella Obscura , directed by the musician and composer Cornelia Brugger and including about 20 musicians.
Behind them, in front of the audience, Dupont’s masterpiece Varieté.

The idea of the movie comes from the novel Der Eid des Stephan Huller (1923) by Hollaender, which worked only has inspiration for Dupont, since he personalized it completely. At that time the young german director was working also as journalist for the “B. Z. am Mittag” and his idea of promoting the movie through this column was for sure successful. Varieté was and still is a great movie picture. The plot might seem simple and reused, at least nowadays: he (once again Emil Jannings) leaves her for another woman (Lya de Putti), but then she betrays him with another man. The context and the entire outline, though, give the movie a very exceptional aura: the story is settled in Berlin in the circus atmosphere, the protagonists are all very talented trapezists and the movie involves a specific, dangerous emotion: jealousy (term which, by the way, has been used as title for the american distribution of the film).
To all this, the technical aspect is once again fundamental: as Murnau’s in Der letzte Mann, also Dupont here makes large use of the “entfesselte Kamera” (unchained camera), providing us the vertiginous point of view of the trapezists. Given the tension that occurs up there at the end of the movie during the show, the technique results particularly effective to enclose the audience and produce suspense.

Moreover, the movie starts in a very unusual way, unclear at a first glimpse: it starts in a prison, showing us Jannings (Boss Huller in the movie) with a black-and-white shirt and a big number 28 on his back – number with no explanation till the end! During the vision the viewer is so deeply captured by the plot and the images that this initial sequence in the prison might almost be forgotten: but Dupont brings it back at the end, closing the circular narration and explaining us the final fabula.
One of most fascinating aspects of the cinematographic art is indeed the ability of travelling into time not only with words and mind work (as novels or theatre) or statically (as painting), but rather in a visual, dynamic, realistic way. Dupont’s use of flashback and retrospective narration works perfectly well even now.

In this specific case, it must be said that part of the power of the movie came from the absorbing music, live in Karlsruhe: the ensemble Capella Obscura made an exciting work, which would have probably been worthy in any case. The closing event of the Festival was a real success, I wish to everybody to be able to watch this movie with such a musical accompaniment; in fact, the instability and openness of all silent movies is at the same time an advantage and a disadvantage: from an acoustic point of view they entirely depend on the momentary available tools and conditions but, somehow, they are also always open to creativity.

That is probably why, still these days, silent movies can be fascinating, far from being closed and limited.

Maria Adorno