Directed by Joe May
Saturday, May 5, 2012 at Museum of the Moving Image as part of the "Fashion in Film Festival”
Made at the tail end of the Weimar Renaissance by a slew of German Expressionist technicians, 1929's Asphalt turns stylish seduction into a metaphor for municipal decay. A kaleidoscopic prologue shows tar being pounded into city streets and double-exposed images of moving cars and anonymous feet seemingly set on a collision course; the citizenry here is a custodial slave to urban machinations. Soon after, we meet one of the city's many human cogs: Albert (Gustav Frölich), a young, upstanding traffic cop who's called to investigate a jewelry theft. The burglar is a silkily-dressed and fuzzily-framed flapper, Else (Betty Amann) who's eager to play Eve to his Adam. He follows her to her apartment, bedecked with stolen finery, and they fall in love—or at least into bed.
That the film is screening as part of Museum of the Moving Image's "Fashion in Film Festival" underscores the curiously glossy binary pair that director Joe May offers us. The mammoth star on Albert's cap gleams as hotly and seductively as any of Else's stolen diamonds, and his uniform is as tightly stitched as her exotic quilts. Both characters follow prescribed dogmas to draconian if naïve extremes—Albert's judicial-mindedness is as shallow and unadulterated as Else's kleptomaniacal hedonism, a set of protocol rather than principles. But their attraction to these unlikely symmetries requires feverish sacrifices, and by the film's close, the law has stooped to crime while the criminal has climbed to something resembling honesty.
The film's camerawork isn't quite up to the par of Murnau, Lang, or von Sternberg, but May and cinematographer Günther Rittau make up for a few clumsy pans with their attentiveness to faces and bodies that occasionally seem to darken as they grow nearer to the lens. These haunting shots suggest the undefinable instinct that drives the actions of both Albert and Else; their "motives" are outside of their bodies, residing in trends both anthropological and sociological, and they become mere tortured silhouettes.