If you type in the term “Unchained camera” into the Wikipedia search bar, you’ll come across a very brief article where it hints that F. W. Murnau, one of the finest directors to come out of the German expressionist film movement, was the creator of an innovation called the “Unchained camera”. The technique allowed cinematographers to get their shots through motion. Basically, we have to thank Murnau for setting up tracking shots, tilting shots, crane shots etc, all camera tricks that are the most commonly used in modern day cinematography, right? Perhaps, but partial credit can go to him. You see, Murnau introduced these techniques in his 1924 film, The Last Laugh, whose director of photography, Karl Freund can also be credited for this innovation. Cinematography beforehand consisted mainly of static shots, no matter if Fritz Lang was creating incredulous production design, or if it was Harold Lloyd doing a death-defying stunt, the camera always remained fixated on three legs. But after The Last Laugh, Freund went down in history as one of the greatest forgotten cinematographers. And he continued his elaborate movements in the camera department a year later in the E. A. Dupont directed silent melodrama, Varieté.
Freshly reissued from the Masters of Cinema series, Varieté tells the story of Boss Huller (Emil Jannings) a former trapeze artist who runs a sleazy carnival with his wife (Maly Delschaft) and his newborn child. One day, an orphan girl arrives at the carnival named Berta-Marie (Lya De Putti), whom Huller takes under his wing and hires her as an exotic dancer. However, following Berta-Marie’s wild dancing, Huller becomes obsessed with the young girl and this refuels his desire to become a trapeze artist once more. He runs away with her, abandoning his wife and child altogether. Meanwhile, their revamped trapeze act grabs the attention of the acrobat, Mr. Artinelli (Warwick Ward) who’s searching for a new partner and instead gets both Huller and Berta-Marie to join his act. But soon afterwards, Artinelli begins to develop a lust for Berta-Marie which if Huller finds out, their three-way trapeze act will come crashing down upon them.
On the surface, Varieté’s story is very primitive. It is a film about obsession and jealousy told in the seemingly most unsophisticated of ways. In fact, even the English title of this is called Jealousy, exactly what it tells you on the box. But where Varieté stands out from being a typical melodrama is with the domineering performance from Emil Jannings and the atmosphere that both Dupont and Freund have conjured up. Jannings’ performances were not subtle in the slightest, which filmmakers like Dupont, Lang, and Murnau looked to achieve with their actors – to exaggerate and distort the performances. So an actor’s movement, expressions or gestures in each and every film from this period can be seen as overreacting by today’s standards. This is all the more apparent when Huller glares down Artinelli in the final act; the contempt just seeps from his body – simple, perhaps, but effective.
The trapeze acts themselves are the reason that Varieté holds up so well since it was first released. The unchained camera enhances the dizziness and disorientation found in the air. The camera spins, twirls and pans across Huller, Berta-Marie, and Artinelli as they perform incredulous amounts of stunt work. The tension is real as the tiniest fault could cost them their careers and the cinematography just makes it all the more menacing for the audience to comprehend. You would think that Jannings’ own size would be off key for him to ever be cast as a trapeze artist. But Varieté never lets go of the fact that without Jannings, this would be a typical love triangle melodrama. But picture this, when Artinelli places a sack over his head and is about to make a death-defying leap to Huller on the other end of the line, Huller is sweating, worn out and sits down on the slim wooden bar that separates him and a massive drop in the audience. He imagines for a second that Artinelli makes the jump, but then he stabs him in the back and lets him go on purpose, leading to his doom. But this never happens. It all adds to Huller’s hidden rage, yes, however without this glimpse into his head, then the structure of the story would have been weakened. He could have never gotten away with it at a second thought and completes the act nonetheless.
Varieté’s execution is what makes the film stand on four legs. But its biggest problem is that it is bland in the writing department. Despite Huller being a three-dimensional character, Berta-Marie and Artinelli are forgettable. Berta-Marie isn’t imaginatively written despite having a great set-up, where she was an immigrant into the country and her mother died during the voyage – and because she is an outcast with no connection to this new country, she gets named after the ship she was sent on. But she isn’t developed and characterized enough and later on just becomes a symbol of lust and that’s that. As for Artinelli, there is a seediness within him that is never brought out fully. Dupont is trying to make both men as despicable as each other, but considering that Huller is the one that runs away from his wife and newborn child, the most heinous thing you could do in a situation like this, Huller overwhelms his rival instantly. All Artinelli wants is to have Berta-Marie which Huller is upset by, but the writing feels backwards as that is precisely the thing that overpowered Huller in the first place, lust. And it seems a bit self-contradictory and confused that honestly, you could have dropped the whole wife and child subplot altogether. But despite some clunky plotting and thin characters, Varieté still has the imagery and the right lead performer to impress. Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, Varieté still packs a punch and a kick that any silent film lover would enjoy. It’s not without its faults, but the things that it gets right get it across the finish line.