Oft-overlooked German Melodrama From G.W. Pabst is a Wild Ride of Personal and Political Intrigue.
DIRECTED BY G.W. PABST/1927
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: APRIL 21, 2020/KINO CLASSICS
Broken mirrors and strangulation prove uneasy through lines in Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s exceedingly competent 1927 silent melodrama/narrative tilt-a-whirl, The Love of Jeanne Ney (Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney). Romance, politics, and apparent attention deficit disorder on the part of the screenwriters mark this absolutely compelling large-scale Weimar-era UFA production (based on a novel by Ilja Ehrenburg). Think proto-Casablanca by way of Buckaroo Banzai with a touch of Die Hard’s villainy red herring plot.
Intrigued? The Love of Jeanne Ney earns it. So, for that matter, does this new Blu-ray release from Kino Classics. This beautifully restored version looks almost impossibly perfect (though yes, there is wear and tear). Shot with the impeccable high standards of black and white cinematography (though, it should be noted, not “expressionistic”) that history has come to associate with the then-reigning German film industry, it’s wholly likely that this title has not looked this stunning since 1927.
Director Pabst, along with Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, ruled the impressive roost back then (though the latter had moved to Hollywood by this time, giving the world, for one thing, Sunrise), doing their parts to elevate the art of silent filmmaking to the creative apex demonstrated here. Pabst’s grander masterpieces were yet to come, but Jeanne Ney should not by any means be overlooked. It’s his absolutely sure hand, coupled with the film’s perfect casting (including Brigitte Helm of Metropolis fame as a sympathetic young blind woman) and spot-on performances, that elevate this otherwise unintentionally zany storyline to completely respectable heights.
It’s current day 1927 in the story as the Soviet White Army takes to Crimea- a debauched place that, we’re told, “knavery is everywhere”, and the Bolshevik revolution still hasn’t taken hold. Tensions run high between the new Lenin-loving order and the traditionalists, and the jury remains out on just how truly sympathetic the historically leftist Pabst is to either side. Neither is particularly like able; both are downright despicable at times. Caught in the whirlwind of it all is the young lady Jeanne Ney (a competent and engaging Édith Jéhanne). She just walked in on her dead father apparently murdered by her lover, so her trauma is off to a grand start. Love’s bond, however, is awfully strong. Much later, she’ll freak out at the thought of this guy going to the still-in-use guillotine.
Before that, we meet Khalibiev (Pabst regular Fritz Rasp), surely one of the silent era’s most satisfyingly utilitarian villains. His degeneracy and conniving nature run to the grotesque, as does his sneering greasy mustachioed physicality. He has the command and confident demeanor of Dracula but the complexion and backbone of Renfield. He’s pale and clammy with too much eyeliner, but no one seems to notice or care. His plans include selling secrets, absconding with our heroine, stealing a valuable diamond that suddenly becomes a big part of the plot, and marrying for money then killing his blind unsuspecting bride to run off with a flapper he met in a bar. If it’s not one scheme it’s another.
This being a fairly large-scale international melodrama proper, the piling-on of said plot elements occurs in an unapologetic manner. This is covered, along with much else, in film historian Eddy Von Mueller’s optional audio commentary. Von Mueller knows his stuff and serves up something of a master class in the shared histories of UFA, Pabst, and this film itself- all illuminated and framed by his study of the time’s world events. He demonstrates that much of film history is simply history in context, and he does it in a fully engaging way. This commentary is a tremendous added value to this already great disc.
There are two, count ‘em, two separate versions of The Love of Jeanne Ney on this disc. The prime version is the restored German release (displaying German intertitles with optional English subtitles), presented with music arranged and orchestrated by Bernd Thewes (based on historical piano compilations from the Museum of Modern Art). A word on this score- Thewes doesn’t hold back on this one. Cues freely ping-pong in tone and intensity, sometimes several times within the same scene. The score also harbors a certain cool-as-a-cucumber theme as its central motif. It’s very catchy and even fun, punching up particular moments that audiences a near-century later might have less patience with. It’s a wild ride unto itself, not out of step with the winding while of Pabst’s film. It has its dynamite moments (such as its perky metropolitan zip over a long-lensed street market sequence) though I can imagine how some film buffs may not be entirely enamored with this score.
U.S. release version, by contrast, is an inferior affair across the board. Trimmed for content and thus missing particular key moments that were deemed “small” and therefore expendable, this cut of The Love of Jeanne Ney proves inferior to its German version. The score is a much more traditional affair by Andrew Earl Simpson; one guy at the piano giving it his all as though it’s 1927. Surely this score is the more “authentic” sound, though it must be said that the preference of this reviewer runs to the Thewes music on the main cut. Finally, the U.S. version, while sporting vintage English titles (complete with actors credited upon their appearance throughout) is an inferior transfer; an ashen aesthetic is what it is.
While this review is admittedly dodgy on story recap (a critic’s most dreaded portion of any such undertaking), it can honestly be said that this most-confident blend of ripped-from-the-headlines political intrigue and sensual affairs of the heart (with a side of $50,000 diamond theft) transcends its own plot soup, laying the way for Pabst to make a more lasting mark with 1929’s double/shot of Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. The Love of Jeanne Ney, however, proves that it too is worth loving – and possessing.