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June 03, 2021

The Woman One Longs For

the woman one longs for.jpg

Die Frau, nach der man sich sehnt / Three Loves
Kurt Bernhardt - 1929
Kino Classics BD Region A

The emphasis on the blu-ray release of The Woman One Longs For is that it is a German silent film starring Marlene Dietrich made prior to her "discovery" by Josef von Sternberg. Dietrich does play the titular character, though her actual billing is below that of top-billed Fritz Kortner. Dietrich is not exactly a femme fatale here, although knowing her proves to be the undoing of two men in this story. While Dietrich has yet to be molded into the glamorous icon as established in the von Sternberg films, it is the artistry of the filmmaking that caught me off guard.

The source novel is from Max Brod, a name more familiar as the friend and biographer of Franz Kafka. The son of an industrialist, Henri, goes on a honeymoon trip by train with his wife, Angela. Henry spots Stascha looking out through the frosted window of the train he and his wife are about to board. Stascha is accompanied by an older man, heavy, with a monocle. Later on the train, Stascha implores Henri to help her as she says she is traveling with the man against her will. Henri ditches his wife to follow Stascha and the man identified as Mr. Karoff to the Grand Hotel. Bernhardt and screenwriter Ladislaus Vajda had sense enough not to pad out the film which runs at a tidy 77 minutes.

I admittedly have only seen a handful of films directed by the future Curtis Bernhardt, as he was renamed moving from Germany to Hollywood. My own initial impression of Bernhardt was that of a second-stringer, the guy Jack Warner tapped for the "women's pictures" when Michael Curtiz and Anatole Litvak were to busy, or the project was less than prestigious. There is precious little written about Bernhardt that makes it easy to dismiss him as primarily a journeyman director. It was actually an online piece on Conrad Veidt by Fiona Watson that suggested Bernhardt has another filmmaker in need of further research. Watson has written about The Man who was Murdered, and Bernhardt's use of tracking shots and dissolves. Further searching took me to a Bright Lights essay by Marc Svetov grouping Bernhardt with Robert Siodmak and Max Ophuls work in the early 1930s in Germany and France. It would appear that Curtis Bernhardt's pre-Hollywood work needs to be better known.

There is a traveling shot near the beginning, inside a cafe, that traverses the length of the cafe and back. Within the sequences that take place on the train are a couple of shots going either forward or back through the corridor of a train car. The scene taking place in the hotel on New Year's Eve begins with the close-up of a giant clock, that backing decoration for the house band, with an extended tracking shot away from the clock to reveal the celebrants in the ballroom. Bernhardt may have also been under the influence of Eisenstein with the use of quick cutting montage. A series of shots establishing a steel factory could well have been taken from Soviet propaganda, with the parts of the plant seen as a series of almost abstract images. The fist fight between Henry and Karoff is a succession of quick close- ups - a slap to the jaw, a monocle dropping to the floor, fists against chests, fists against jaws, and some tentative grappling. Dietrich is first introduced visually in the frame of the train window within the camera frame.

In her commentary track, Gaylyn Studlar points out that Marlene Dietrich was not quite a star at the time of production. She was chosen over studio objections by Bernhardt following a series of supporting roles in films made earlier in the decade. Stardom was still not quite in the grasp of the 28 year old actress, even with prominent roles here and under the direction of Maurice Tourneur. Studlar goes deepest in discussing the career of Fritz Kortner, as well as touching on the careers of Bernhardt in Hollywood, and cinematographer Curt Courant. The blu-ray also includes a score by jazz/classical musician Pascal Schumacher showing the influence of the composers of the 1920s. The blu-ray is sourced from a print restored in 2012 by the F. W. Murnau Foundation. I usually refrain from hyperbole, but The Woman One Longs For could well be one of the best classic releases of this year.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 3, 2021 06:12 AM