Incarcerated for ten years, Prisoner 28 has never spoken of the reasons for his incarceration, but invited by the warden and spurred by a letter from his wife telling him that she and their child still wish for him to come home, he unburdens himself of the oldest story in the book, infatuation, jealousy, betrayal, murder.
Released by Eureka as part of their ongoing Masters of Cinema label, Ewald Andre Dupont’s Varieté may not be the first telling of that particular story but it is one of the earliest extant feature films to be built around it, originally released in 1925 and now restored and remastered by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung, the foundation dedicated to the preservation of the great works of German cinema in memory of that director.
Emil Jannings, star of Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) and recipient of the first Academy Award for Best Actor for The Way of All Flesh (now considered a “lost film”) and The Last Command at the 1929 ceremony, the only year that multiple roles were considered by the Academy and to date the only German to have won the Best Actor Oscar, is Prisoner 28, formerly Boss Huller, a retired trapeze artist fallen on hard times.
Running a carnival show in Hamburg with his wife (Maly Delschaft) who cares for their baby, trouble comes in the form of new dancer Berta-Marie (The Sorrows of Satan‘s Lya De Putti), named after the ship she travelled on, a ship supposedly cursed. His wife is furious but Huller insists that Berta-Marie stays and becomes part of the act but soon he is jealous even of the crowd who watches her and he abandons his wife and child to take Berta-Marie to Berlin.
There they perform together and attract the attention of the famed trapeze artist Artinelli (Warwick Ward, a former leading man of British silent cinema who moved to villainy in continental roles before becoming a successful producer) who coaxes them to join his own act at the famed Berlin Wintergarten theatre even as he succumbs to his own obsession with Berta-Marie whose scant honour means she offers only token resistance.
Based on Felix Hollaender’s 1923 novel Der Eid des Stephan Huller (The Oath of Stephan Huller), Varieté is a standard melodrama whose technical achievement in the lofty heights of the circus tent may have been noteworthy at the time but whose charm and innovation have somewhat faded along with the non-aerial acrobatics, dance numbers, juggling and plate spinning, the restoration improving the picture but not the acts themselves.
Pedestrian, overlong and overwrought, the showcase scenes of the various performers are nine decades past their sell by date and there are only rare moments of visual inspiration, the dancers reflected in the opera glasses of the audience, a woman draped in pearls who half a century later would be echoed in a Madonna photoshoot, but Dupont stretches the inevitable when he should be expressing the madness of the passions of the competing lovers.
Offered with an edited American print, ten minutes shorter, the original German version has three alternative soundtracks by Stephen Horne, Johannes Contag and the Tiger Lillies; the former two are more traditional though interestingly emphasise different aspects of the film, while the latter varies from intrusive to cacophonous, Martyn Jacques’ repetitive wailing doing no favours to the silent film where even the characters cannot cry for help.