One of the last great German Expressionist films of the silent era, Joe May’s Asphalt is a love story set in the traffic-strewn Berlin of the late 1920s. Starring the delectable Betty Amann in her most famous leading role, Asphalt is a luxuriously produced Ufa classic where tragic liaisons and fatal encounters are shaped alongside the constant roar of traffic.
In Berlin, a policeman called Holk is summoned to a jeweller’s shop, where a beautiful young woman has tried to steal a diamond. En route to the police station, the woman takes Holk back to her apartment on the pretext of collecting some papers and ends up seducing him. Soon he finds himself caught between his duty and the woman he is falling in love with.
Asphalt was one of the last films of the silent German Expressionist era – like Fritz Lang, director Joe May soon made the move to Hollywood, although failed to find the success there that Lang did. In Asphalt, May sets a simplistic morality tale against the backdrop of modern, bustling city – there are none of the political overtones of other films of the time, but the picture remains both a technical triumph and a touching story of doomed love.
May opens the film with a bravura display of the cinematic techniques that were being pioneered at the time, capturing the industrial fury of modern Berlin. The director overlays frames of traffic as cars thunder through the city and performs some dramatic crane shots over the crowds and across the streets, all part of a massive set at the renowned UFA studios. Eventually, he comes to focus on just four characters – dedicated, hardworking cop Holk, his loving parents with whom he lives, and Mutter, the sultry would-be jewel thief who steals his heart.
In terms of events, very little actually happens in Asphalt – in a modern picture, the entire 90 minute running time would probably just be compressed into the first act. So it’s a testament to the skill of both the actors and the director that the film is quite as watchable as it is. Else Heller, playing Mutter, is by turns cunning, sultry and fragile – her ambiguous performance is played largely with her eyes, and we are never sure if we are watching the ‘real’ Mutter, or just an act. Albert Steinrück is a more straight-forward, stoic hero, but the haunted, terrified look on his face after he returns home after committing a terrible act towards the end makes for one of the film’s most striking moments.
May’s direction remains impressive throughout, although the more dramatic technical trickery is largely kept for the opening sequences. Nevertheless, the lighting, editing and camerawork help create an atmosphere charged with a sense of doomed inevitability, and the scenes between Heller and Steinrück carry an undeniable erotic charge. For all its innovation, Asphalt is obvious a film of its era – the only dialogue is supplied by occasional inter-titles, and a melodramatic, sometime rather inappropriate score provides the soundtrack. Within two years, Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking masterpiece M would make the likes of Asphalt seem positively quaint by comparison, but this remains a little known but important part of cinema history. .