Skip to content

January 18, 2008

Silent Reflections – Variety (1925)



Obscure today, Variety is one of the major works of German Expressionism. It’s a crime of passion drama distinguished by a fine performance by Emil Jannings and the wonderful visual filmmaking that’s the movement’s hallmark.

Variety was heavily censored for its American release, and how it was changed makes it almost as interesting as a case study in film censorship as it is enjoyable as a movie. In the censored version (which is what I saw this week at the Cinefamily theater), the story is a classic love triangle of husband (Emil Jannings), wife (Lya De Putti), and wife’s lover. There’s never any question that it will end in tragedy since the film is bookmarked by a brief framing story showing the husband narrating the history of his crime from prison. There is some suspense: whether the wife or the lover was the victim, and the manner of the killing, are left to be revealed at the end. However, the film’s focus from the start is on the character drama rather than the mechanics of the plot.

The three principals are the Three Artinellis, a high wire trapeze act. I must say I never expected to see Jannings as a trapeze artist. Credibility is achieved by making him the catcher, a job requiring brute strength. The wife’s lover is the star and boss of the Three Artinellis. He recruits the couple to be part of the act and initiates the affair. It’s a questionable move considering the husband’s strong grip is the only thing between him and death, but then she is very beautiful.

The circus the Three Artinellis headline is no mere carnival attraction. It’s more like the Cirque du Soleil of Berlin, c. 1925. No clowns or animals. Yes acrobats and jugglers and their routines are dazzling; they were surely the top performers of their day. The spectacle is staged in a theater with the high wire strung out across the auditorium. Extra thrills for the audience sitting right underneath the wire and for the movie audience as well as we wonder if the husband will catch the other man– this time.

There are too many horror stories from cinema’s first few decades of the censors cutting “offensive” scenes or lines of dialogue here and there without regard to continuity, reducing a story into an incomprehensible mess, or combing through a film to cut out all the suggestive bits until it was made acceptably sexless. Variety is especially interesting as a case study because it fits a less familiar scenario. The censors re-edited the story to create a finished product that is fully coherent and eminently watchable– in fact, you’d never guess Variety was abridged just from watching it– and yet so altered as to be a different film.

In its original version, Variety began with a lengthy section showing how Jannings fell in love with De Putti, left his wife for her, and then created the trapeze act with his lover. This part of the story was excised completely by the American censors and title cards added to redefine Jannings and De Putti as the married couple of the U.S. release version.

The censors’ intent was plainly to erase the objectionable plot point that cast adulterous lovers as the established couple of the love triangle. They succeeded in radically transforming the story. The unfaithful husband who is in his turn betrayed by his unfaithful lover is transformed by the censors’ scissors into a sympathetic cuckold. The opportunistic temptress who catches two men only to end up with none is transformed into a young wife who succumbs to temptation. From unsparing morality play to conventional melodrama, courtesy of censorship.

Variety illustrates the breadth of the stylistic umbrella that is German Expressionism, as it lacks several of the motifs of key films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Last Laugh. The performance style is predominantly naturalistic. The lighting is also mostly naturalistic and the landscape and physical surroundings are familiar and commonplace. Special effects are used very sparingly though to good effect.

While the film lacks the visual distortions and overall flashiness, it’s distinguished by other significant Expressionist elements. In particular, by the heavy use of close-ups, fluid camera movements (Variety was photographed by Karl Freund, cinematographer of The Last Laugh and Metropolis), and propulsive editing rhythm.

Note: A few minutes of post-viewing web research suggests that the cut version is the only one readily available in the U.S., but that the original cut, or at least a substantially longer European release version, is extant and awaiting restoration. Variety is a prominent example of ‘twenties film censorship and I easily found several sources of credible information about the changes demanded by the review board.