After many years in prison, with friends and family petitioning for his pardon, Prisoner 28 (Jannings) tells of his crime to a judge. In flashback, we learn that he is Boss Huller and that, years before, he had a carnival trapeze act along with his wife, Berta-Marie (de Putti). Invited to collaborate with Artinelli, a more famous trapeze artist, the Hullers move into the glamorous realms of spectacular variety entertainment. When Huller learns that Artinelli and Berta-Marie’s friendship has turned into an affair, he contemplates murdering Artinelli by ‘accidentally’ dropping him in mid-performance. Instead, he confronts him and in the ensuing struggle, stabs him to death. Having heard Huller’s story, the judge pronounces a pardon and releases him from prison.
On its release, E. A. Dupont’s Variety was among the most talked about films in the world, both a box office and a critical success.1 It was one of few interwar German films – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Last Laugh were others – to achieve substantial success in America, where it was the 1926 winner of the annual Film Critics poll. In the New York Times, it was hailed as no less than the greatest film ever made, ‘the strongest and most inspiring drama that has ever been told by the evanescent shadows.’ 2 Today, however, it is perhaps the least well known of well-known Weimar films; unlike Metropolis or Pandora’s Box, its images have not been absorbed into the canon of cultural memory, either general or cinephile. Its place in film history has largely been reduced to one stunning visual effect: sequences shot from a camera on a moving circus trapeze, images which gave audiences the giddy sensation of swinging and soaring, and of falling and plunging to earth.
More than 80 years on, Variety’s visual impact remains startling, but the film is and was much more than a vehicle for photo-technical virtuosity. The film’s look – encompassing its mobile camera, dynamic editing and a mise en scène teeming with the play of motion and light – forms an inseparable part of its closely observed psychological miniature, a triangle of desire and jealousy, masochism and murder. Variety borrows generic conventions from popular Weimar formats like the ‘street film’ and the ‘chamber film’. In its general thematic preoccupations too, it is very much of its time, first, in its simultaneous fascination with and horror at urban modernity and its burgeoning mass cultural forms, second in its preoccupation with scenes of looking and technologies of vision, and third, in the ambiguity of its representation of gender and sexuality. Finally, Variety is medially self-reflexive, both a product and a representation of the booming popular entertainment industry, and a document of the complex intermedial relations between film and popular performance at the time.
Although film and – broadly speaking – theatre have often been depicted as rival media, in fact their relations were, and are, much more complex than simple opposition or competition. The exhibition of moving images on film, of course, began as a kind of variety act, just another fairground attraction. Significantly, although Variety does not directly allude to this, the first public film projections in Germany took place in the Wintergarten, here the location of the Three Artinellis’ aerialist performances. While cinema in time moved out of this milieu, becoming an autonomous medium and industry, this expansion did not come directly at the expense of popular performance and variety theatre. As cinema developed into a central element in a culture of mass leisure and consumption, variety theatre experienced its own boom, with dozens of new locations opening in the early 1920s (Guerin 2005: 192–231).
This boom rested, to no small degree, on electricity. Electric technologies of illumination and amplification expanded the possibilities of popular entertainment, but they needed significant capital investment. A steeper hierarchy emerged, topped by a tier of wealthy venues and prestigious acts. Variety makes this stratification visible, both onstage and backstage. The Wintergarten spectacle – with its huge indoor arena, elaborate lighting, considerable publicity apparatus – contrasts with more rudimentary fairground entertainment. The hierarchy is also to be seen in the contrast between glamorous, upscale bohemia and the life of carnival’s proletarian milieu; this sharpened distinction is also an important motivation for the characters, underlying Berta-Marie’s ambition to ascend to higher showbiz echelons and Artinelli’s initial repugnance at dealing with ‘mere carnival performers’. And there is always further to go, higher to climb, another culture industry to conquer: Artinelli partly engineers his seduction of Berta-Marie with hints of offers from America.
E. A. Dupont, the film’s director, knew these overlapping worlds of variety and film as well as anyone. Before moving into the film business around 1916, he was a newspaper reporter covering film and popular theatre, writing a column entitled ‘Film and Variety’. Even after establishing himself as an important director and film writer, he kept ties to variety, even spending a year as a theatre manager in 1924.3 After Variety made his name internationally – it was his calling card to a later career in Hollywood, England and France – he returned repeatedly to the world of popular performance in films like Piccadilly and Moulin Rouge. But it would be wrong to regard Dupont as an all-powerful, all-determining auteur. Other figures and larger forces were just as important in determining the film’s form, meaning and impact. Above all, Variety bears the imprint of the man who handpicked Dupont for the job: Erich Pommer, then head of production at the UFA studio, arguably the most important person in the German film business in the early 1920s.
Variety exemplified Pommer’s belief that the German film industry could assert itself against Hollywood by producing films that combined artistic credibility with high production values, especially in their use of innovative technology and spectacular special effects.4 Sometimes these ‘quality films’ borrowed from high art, as in Murnau’s Faust, which added dazzling, expensive special effects to a version of Goethe’s play; sometimes they were drawn from mass culture, as with Variety’s adaptation of a popular novel, Felix Hollaender’s The Oath of Stephan Huller. Whatever the source material, Pommer’s vision was of superior vernacular artworks, profitable enough to maintain German production against Hollywood competition, and even to make inroads in America itself.5 The relative transatlantic success of Murnau’s Last Laugh in 1924 seemed to confirm the model, and – looking to build on that success – Variety reprises two key elements of that film. The first was Jannings’ unusual leading-man persona, which successfully combined a bulky, graceful physicality with sexualised abjection and the pathos of humiliation. The second, just as important, was the visceral thrill of Karl Freund’s ‘liberated camera’ – die entfesselte Kamera – a shorthand name for techniques of mobility and portability that enabled startling visual sensations.6
In Variety, Freund and Dupont used camera mobilisation in more radical ways than in Murnau’s film. As Thomas Brandlmeier points out, where camera movement in The Last Laugh functions largely along linear vertical and horizontal axes, Variety’s placement of the camera on suspended, swinging objects lent a qualitatively new fluidity to spatial representation (2008: 72). The viewpoint and vanishing point established in linear perspective are here dynamised, with vaulting, shifting horizons creating a giddy sense of groundlessness, foreshadowing the media theorist Paul Virilio’s later formulation that ‘cinema is not “I see”, it is “I fly”’. 7
But these moments of photoscopic hyperkinesis are actually used comparatively sparingly – they do not stand alone, but combine with other effects of motion to create the dynamic visual spectacle. Thus, in a number of set-piece scenes, the camera becomes only one moving object within a dizzying extravaganza of moving bodies and objects. In the opening carnival scene – a tutor-text for watching and understanding the film – the vaulting movement of the camera on a swingboat feeds into a still more extravagant play of movement, vibration and motility. This encompasses the Brownian motion of crowds, the turning of carousels, the shuttling of roller-coaster cars, the lights of distant trains cutting through the frame, even the resonant shudder of human muscles and performed facial twitches. We even see some of this photo-dynamism – reminiscent of contemporary formalist experiments by Walter Ruttmann or László Moholy-Nagy – through the close-up blur of a rotating fairground ride. Later, the film will reprise this veil of unfocussed movement in another famous shot, when the performers’ party is seen through the blades of a rotating ceiling fan.
Crucially, this complex movement is not simply a visual thrill: it comes with an acute thematic, dramatic and psychological point. The thrills of the fairground and spectacular performance here are a concentrated node of a world in exciting, dangerous flux. Visual dynamism is used to characterise urban life as a place of upheaval and uncertainty, temptation and sensation, full of motion and excitement, but also overstimulation and excessive spectacle. Modernity exudes a nervousness and shallowness that threatens to destabilise moral certainties along with perceptual norms. The film underlines the link between variety’s dynamism and larger phenomena of mobility by emphasising the Wintergarten’s location in Berlin. We see theatrical performers arriving by train from all over Europe, walking en masse through the crowded streets to the nearby theatre. This passage through geographical space is in turn inseparable from the display of moving bodies on stage, celebrated in a hectic montage sequence of chorus lines, acrobats, spinning plates, slapstick artists, unicycling jugglers and more.
This dynamic environment is more than simply context for the film’s action. It structurally pervades what is, on the face of it, a simple narrative constellation: a love triangle between two men and a woman, with a sequence of events leading from temptation to betrayal, concealment to discovery, from jealousy to murderous rage. The triangle is of a specific kind: the Oedipal triangle, a frequent Weimar story structure, understood in broad terms as sexual competition over a woman between an older and a younger man, often a father and son.8 But Variety renders even this structure unstable and hard to read. The relation established between Berta-Marie, Boss and Artinelli forms a dangerously uncertain and ambiguous space, with gender, sexuality and age unmoored from simple definition. It is as if, at the level of the story too, all is in motion, the triangle’s lines and points in dynamic relation.
The fluctuating relation of the three main characters has a proper name, appropriately paradoxical. Their act is ‘The Three Artinellis’, a formation that replaces the ‘natural’ fraternity of the ‘Artinelli Brothers’, put out of action when a second brother broke a leg. Artinelli is temporarily emasculated – forced to watch the performances of others from the audience – and in response constructs a quasi-family bearing his name, a grouping teeming with undefined, shifting and ultimately fatal desires. On the trapeze, the three are dressed in homogenous, androgynous white suits, marked with a black death’s head, collectively performing for the audience’s voyeuristic gaze, but internally pervaded with desire, riven with panic and deathfantasies. The group is described as the kings of the air, but from the outset, power is not shared equally, and neither the gender nor the relations of these three ‘kings’ are simple or clear.
Among the three, Berta-Marie is a noticeably underdeveloped character, perhaps pointing to her more abstract – and lesser – role as Dangerous Woman, primarily a trigger of desire’s disturbance of fixed identities and relations. But additionally, as many viewers have noted, both Boss and Artinelli, in their different ways, are also partly feminised figures. In the fairground household, Boss performs the domestic role, cooking and cleaning, joining the women’s queue to buy milk. In this context, Jannings’s strength and physicality seems less traditionally masculine than proletarian-female. But his erotic relation to Berta-Marie is abject, almost infantile: in the scenes between the two, Jannings’ facial performance emphasises his attitude of childish supplication. Artinelli, by contrast, is the suave upper-class heterosexual seducer, but at the same time his slight frame, fastidious manners and elegant dress position him as effeminate, particularly in comparison to Jannings’ bulky presence. Ultimately the most intense side of the desiring-triangle is Varieté/Variety (1925) 569 perhaps between Boss and Artinelli: it might be argued that Berta-Marie’s key role is less as a subject or object of desire in her own right, but rather as a medium between the two men. At one point, Boss literally throws her into Artinelli’s arms; in urging the two to attend the fireworks display together, Boss seems to conspire in his own cuckolding, drawing him ever closer to Artinelli. Their relation culminates in a murder scene that is also a bedroom scene: the struggle over the knife not hard to read as the final fatal consummation of repressed desire.
The film works hard to control the energies of visual dynamism, moral ambiguity and erotic transgression. Many commentators have noted a tension between the attractions of the film itself – the intensity of light and movement, the sheer visual spectacle – and the emphatic moralism of its frame story. By virtue of this outer story, the film situates the entire main narrative as deposition before a judge: the story is Boss’s sign of repentance, and a plea for mercy. Having heard him out, the judge, a white-bearded man seated beneath a crucifix, declares him forgiven in the eyes of the law and of God. The final image of the film, the last frame of the frame story, is telling. We are shown another visual representation of motion, not the flux of urban modernity now, but a movement at once natural and highly controlled – trees blowing in the wind, framed within the outline of a prison gate.9 Fluid energies are safely put back in their box, sensation subordinated to a rigid code of meaning, modernity’s temptations contained within a moralistic frame.
1. The original, longer German version of the film contains significant differences to the American-released version currently available on DVD. In this original film, Boss is shown to leave his wife and family to form a professional and personal couple with Berta-Marie, whose role as exotic seductress is much more heavily underlined.
2. Morduant Hall, ‘A German Masterpiece’, New York Times, 28 June 1926.
3. In the nine years to 1925, Dupont scripted 32 films and directed 25, as well as, in 1919, writing an important early work on screenwriting, Wie ein Film geschrieben wird und wie man ihn verwertet (How to write and evaluate a film).
4. See Erich Pommer, ‘Geschäftsfilm und künstlerischer Film’ , reprinted in Wolfgang Jacobsen, Erich Pommer: ein Produzent macht Filmgeschichte, Berlin, Argon, 1989, pp. 44–5.
5. The strategy left behind a considerable artistic legacy, but the investment required – above all the runaway costs of Metropolis – left UFA an easy takeover target for right-wing interests in the late 1920s. Hollywood happily bought up the talent. Within a few years, Dupont, Freund and the film’s designers and architects would all be working there; even Pommer himself tried his hand across the Atlantic.
6. The film’s visual innovations were a major selling point overseas. Dupont wrote about them in detail for the New York Times, explaining, for example, how the fall was simulated with a slow-cranked camera lowered on cables, with footage sped up in the final film. E.W. Dupont, ‘Camera Work on Scenes in “Variety”’, New York Times, 11 July 1926, p. X2.
7. Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, London: Verso, 2009 , p. 15. Virilio describes the formulation as his ‘paraphrase’ of unspecified texts by the media artist Nam June Paik.
8. The structure recurs in different ways, for example, in Lang’s Metropolis, Papst’s Pandora’s Box, Murnau’s Nosferatu, among others. See Elsaesser 2000: 73–88.
9. This might even, given the Wintergarten’s place as origin of the German moving image, be read as a containment of the ‘cinema of attractions’ within a ‘cinema of narrative integration’.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: Germany. Production Company: Universum-Film (UFA). Director: E. A. Dupont. Producer: Erich Pommer. Screenwriters: Leo Birinski, E. A. Dupont (based on Felix Holländer’s novel The Oath of Stephan Huller). Cinematographer: Karl Freund, Carl Hoffmann. Music: Ernö Rapée. Cast: Emil Jannings (Boss Huller), Lya de Putti (Berta-Marie), Warwick Ward (Artinelli), Georg Baselt (variety agent), The Three Codonas (trapeze scenes).]
Thomas Brandlmeier, Kameraautoren: Technik und Ästhetik, Marburg, Schüren, 2008. Jürgen Bretschneider, Ewald André Dupont, Autor und Regisseur, Munich, Edition Text + Kritik, 1992.
Thomas Elsaesser, Weimar Cinema and after: Germany’s Historical Imaginary, London, Routledge, 2000.
Frances Guerin, A Culture of Light: Cinema and Technology in 1920s Germany, Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Klaus Kreimeier, The Ufa Story: a History of Germany’s Greatest Film Company, 1918–1945, New York, Hill & Wang, 1996.
Richard McCormick, ‘The Carnival of Humiliation: Sex, Spectacle, and Self-Reflexivity in E. A. Dupont’s Variety (1925)’, in Randall Halle and Margaret McCarthy (eds), Light Motives: German Popular Film in Perspective, Detroit, MI, Wayne State University Press, 2003, pp. 41–60.
Paul Matthew St. Pierre, E. A. Dupont and His Contribution to British Film, Madison, NJ, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2010.
Kristin Thompson, Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood: German and American Film after World War I, Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2005.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.