Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 03 May 2005
Source Masters of Cinema/Eureka! DVD
The plot of Joe May’s Asphalt is very simple: a woman caught trying to shoplift a diamond seduces the cop entrusted with bringing her to justice and the cop pays an very high cost for his lapse in judgment, but great films don’t require elaborate plots to achieve their greatness. Sunrise, the contemporaneous masterpiece by F.W. Murnau, is an uncomplicated story of infidelity rendered extraordinary by the delicate beauty of its imagery. If Asphalt does not quite reach the visionary aesthetic heights of Murnau and if Joe May does not achieve the wild inventiveness of his colleague Fritz Lang, it is perhaps enough that the film is an exceptional piece of entertainment with a modern sense of pacing and style that saves it from the unfortunate fate of so many other silent films: looking and feeling exactly as old as they are.
Joe May, an important figure in the German silent cinema, but not exactly a household name (even among cineastes) today, used all the resources of the cinema at his disposal to create a film far removed from the kinds of plays-on-film that passed for cinema merely a decade earlier. May’s film is quickly cut, is full of close-ups, and employs a camera as restless and fluidly mobile as that of the Ophuls of the early 1950s or the Scorsese of today. Optical effects and striking camera placement and movement are featured, but never detract from the overall storytelling as happens occasionally in the films of Lang and Murnau.
May’s actors eschew the physical histrionics of the stage and of silent melodramas and exercise an easy naturalism in harmony with May’s shooting style. Betty Amann, the female lead who looks like a mash-up of Louise Brooks and Betty Boop, is sensuous and sultry but not cartoonishly so. In other words, she’s no Theda Bara and thank goodness for that. Gustav Fröhlich is the same staunch, stalwart character he played in countless other German films including Metropolis.
The Masters of Cinema DVD edition of Joy May’s last silent film is the first available anywhere in the world. The release is unlikely to cause any earth-shaking, but it is a significant addition to the silent canon, one that those who think German silent cinema began with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and ended with Metropolis would be well served to look at. Like many other German directors of his era, May fled to the United States upon the rise of Hitler. He directed a handful of handsomely made horror films for Universal but never achieved the acclaim of contemporaries like Lang and Lubitsch, but Asphalt now stands as proper evidence of May’s skill and talent as a director.