Recently remastered and re-released by Eureka on their Masters of Cinema label, Ewald André Dupont’s Varieté is a wonderful film that’s well-deserving of a bit more attention, even 90 years after its original release.
It follows Boss Huller (Emil Jannings), the owner of a touring circus and former trapeze artist. Now retired with his wife (Maly Delschaft) and trapeze partner, their relationship is functional but stagnant. However, when a mysterious woman called Berta-Marie (Lya De Putti) appears and joins his entourage, he becomes besotted with her and this marks the end of his marriage. Shortly after this a celebrated younger male trapeze artist named Artinelli (Warwick Ward) joins to turn their duo into a trio. Frictions rise between the two men as they begin to vie for the interest of Berta whilst remaining professional on stage.
Modern cinema fans may know lead actor Jannings, though they may not realise it. He was portrayed in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2007) by Hilmer Eichhorn in the tensely played-out film premier scene. During the Second World War, Liebich was an outspoken supporter of the Nazi party and was taking lead roles in many of the biggest Weimar-era films. By the end of the war, with the Nazi party defeated, he was left unable to work in the restructured Germany keen to forget the pervious decade, eventually retiring to a farm in Austria before dying at the start of the 1950s.
Before this, however, he was a much-celebrated film star, both in Germany and America. He was the first actor to receive the Oscar for Best Actor (for roles in two films: The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh), which happens to also be the first ever Oscar statue given out at the first ceremony, putting Jannings in a unique part of film history. Perhaps his greatest performance came in Die Letzte Mann, released a year before Varieté. He would surely have won more Best Actor Oscars if only the Academy Awards had started ten years previously.
The way the film plays out may leave viewers feeling somewhat bemused about how we are supposed to feel for the lead actor. Firstly, he leaves his wife at the drop of a hat for a woman he knows almost nothing about other than that she has arrived on a seemingly cursed ship. Then, when his new lover essentially does the same back to him, he plots a jealousy-fuelled revenge, murdering both her and her lover. It seems too that the judge in charge of hearing his plight forgives him and allows him to leave prison. It doesn’t leave much room for any kind of compassion for the character. Indeed, when it was released in America the entire introduction was cut from the release, leaving a much more moral character for the viewers .
You may also need to suspend your belief that Jannings could possibly pull off the stunts involved. Whilst they are beautifully and innovatively shot, I couldn’t help but feel like Jannings – 40 at the time of the shoot – was a tad too portly to follow the trajectories required of a trapeze artist. Inevitably an unconvincing stunt double was used, but it’s only a minor blemish on a series of quite fascinating scenes.
Whilst the restoration is absolutely perfect, a note should be made about the variety of soundtrack options available. The unusual default option is supplied by The Tiger Lillies. I attempted to watch this version but changed it after about ten minutes. It didn’t seem to fit very well at all – much more modern than it should have been and not really matching the tone of what was happening on the screen. Much better is the Johannes Contag version, listed as third on the main menu. There’s also the aforementioned complete American version, though I didn’t venture this far.
This is well worth investing in for fans of German silent cinema, and it’s great to see it being given so much attention so long after its initial release.