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For the Love of Film: Varieté and The House of Mystery

The invaluable National Film Preservation Foundation is currently in the process of restoring a silent one-reel comedy titled Cupid in Quarantine from 1918. In order to raise funds to cover lab costs for its preservation as well as the recording of a new score to accompany its online premiere, the essential movie blogs Ferdy on Films, Wonders in the Dark, and This Island Rod are hosting the annual “For the Love of Film” blogathon. White City Cinema is proud to be participating in this blogathon again by contributing reviews of two silent masterpieces newly released on home video in new restorations: Variete and The House of Mystery. Please consider making a donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation, no matter how small, after reading my review. Film preservation is a very worthy cause!

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My two favorite home video releases of the year so far are Flicker Alley’s DVD of Alexandre Volkoff’s 1923 “cliffhanger” serial The House of Mystery and Edel Germany GmbH’s Blu-ray of E.A. Dupont’s drama Variete from 1925. Both films deserve to be called masterpieces of the silent European melodrama and both feature plots that revolve around bizarre love triangles. Yet their virtues are ultimately as different from one another as are the virtues of the new discs that house them. Both films have been the recipients of painstaking new photochemical restorations although each new edition is not without controversy: Variete has been saddled with an anachronistic new score that has silent purists crying foul and The House of Mystery has been released on DVD only and not the superior Blu-ray format. I nonetheless will argue that both releases are absolutely essential for anyone who cares about silent cinema.

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Variete (also known in the U.S. as Variety and Jealousy) was Germany’s biggest box office hit of 1925 and it’s not hard to see why. It came out during the height of the movement known as German Expressionism but, in spite of the extraordinarily fluid camerawork of Karl Freund (Metropolis) and a clever plot about the sinister goings-on within a circus, E.A. DuPont’s movie actually feels closer to the school of social realism with which directors like G.W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box) and Josef Von Sternberg (The Blue Angel) would soon make their mark. The film begins with a long-time prisoner, “Boss” Huller (Emil Jannings in an uncharacteristically restrained performance), breaking a 10-year vow of silence and telling his warden the tragic story, seen in flashback, of how he came to murder his unfaithful trapeze-artist wife (Lya de Putti). The whole thing is great but the undeniable highlights are the exhilarating trapeze sequences, the deft camerawork of which seemingly puts viewers smack-dab into the leotards of the performers, creating a thrilling “you are there” effect.

Previously available on home video only in poor-quality and truncated editions, this definitive restoration of Variete by the redoubtable F.W. Murnau Foundation adds more than 20 minutes of footage unseen since its original release. While the image quality on the Blu-ray is predictably superb, the only option for an audio track is a controversial new score by the British musical trio The Tiger Lillies. This retro-cabaret act’s score features sung lyrics (a no-no for silent films, according to many cinephiles) that comment directly on the onscreen action. Personally, I love it; most silent movies did not have official musical scores so I have to wonder what the point is of commissioning contemporary musicians to compose new scores for silent films if one is only going to handcuff them into imitating something one would’ve heard in a theater 100 years ago (e.g., a generic pastiche of 19th century folk tunes)? Contemporary viewers are, after all, watching digital versions of these films in their own living rooms, no? The musical score for a silent film need only be effective, I say, not attempt to function as some sort of time machine.

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Until recently, The House of Mystery was for me an unknown quantity — a film I had never heard of by a director I had never even heard of — but I purchased it sight unseen anyway simply because it is drumming up excitement in certain cinephile circles. Directed by Alexandre Volkoff, a Russian filmmaker living in France, and co-written by Volkoff and his star and fellow Russian emigre Ivan Musjokine, this 10-chapter “cliffhanger” serial feels like the missing link between Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang. Like Feuillade’s Fantomas (1913), it begins with a montage of close-ups of Musjokine’s character, Julien, a master of disguise, posing in each of the many drastically different makeup jobs he will sport over the next six-and-a-half hours. Unlike Fantomas, Julien is not a master-criminal but rather a good-hearted factory owner who is framed for a murder he did not commit by the factory’s villainous director (Charles Vanel, later a favorite of Henri-George Clouzot) because he covets Julien’s beautiful wife (Helene Darly).

Also different from the serials of Feuillade is how The House of Mystery‘s narrative follows a single clean story arc. Feuillade’s capers were beloved by the Surrealists in part because of their “we’re making it up as we go along” quality (often a cyclical capture-and-escape narrative-loop structure that perhaps best finds a modern equivalent in the endless death-and-rebirth narrative-loop cycles of the Resident Evil series). The House of Mystery, by contrast, is closer to classic “hero’s journey” epics like The Odyssey and The Count of Monte Cristo in its portrait of a man who escapes from prison and spends years attempting to clear his name and reunite with his family. There are many astonishing set pieces along the way — including a wedding sequence depicted entirely in silhouette and an exciting prison-break/chase scene involving a hijacked train being pursued by mounted police. Flicker Alley’s release represents the first time The House of Mystery has ever been released on home video in any format and also serves as a reminder of how much our knowledge of film history depends upon the vicissitudes of fate. While a Blu-ray would have been preferable to this DVD-only release, you should definitely buy this anyway; it’s so good you won’t regret upgrading when and if a Blu-ray ever does hit the market.

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You can make a donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation here.

You can purchase a region-free Blu-ray of Variete from Amazon Germany here. (Chicagoans should note I will be introducing a screening of my own projected Blu-ray of Variete this Saturday, May 16, at Transistor.)

You can purchase The House of Mystery on DVD directly from Flicker Alley here.

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

12 responses to “For the Love of Film: Varieté and The House of Mystery

  • Ferdy on Films

    […] friend to film and a generous prize donor to this blogathon, has a typically excellent post on E. A. Dupont’s silent drama Varieté and Alexandre Volkoff’s serial The House of Mystery. The Flicker Alley DVD is one of his favorite DVD releases, and Mike will tell you […]

  • Silents, Please!

    I haven’t seen Varieté in years, it’s great that it’s finally available in good version.

    I absolutely LOVED La maison du mystère, my friends and I just finished watching it a couple of weeks ago. Great story, great acting, great cinematography – so visually inventive, and it played with different genres while still remaining cohesive. And the ending was very satisfying, though not without some last minute twists. I’m looking forward to the rewatch already!

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks for the comment. I was amazed that a major masterpiece like HOUSE OF MYSTERY existed that I had never even heard of before (Kristin Thompson tipped me off to it). It makes you wonder how many great films there are that we’ve never seen because they no longer exist or exist only in unrestored form and are not available commercially.

      • Silents, Please!

        I’m a big Mosjoukine fan, so I had been anticipating it for a while, but it’s just brilliant that things like this are getting released and finding new fans!

        Regarding your second statement, there are SO many. 😦 I’m grateful for what we can watch – it’s an era of abundance compared to the past – but there are so many films that are unavailable in decent quality, or unavailable at all (due to loss or lack of access). I wrote an article on lost silents I’d like to see here if you’re interested.

  • Joe Thompson

    “the missing link between Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang” — that’s brilliant. I think you persuaded me that these could be the best home video releases of the year.

  • Colm

    Well it’s almost a month since Variete was screened and I find the irony still striking. Was the mystery of Berta Marie not answered in the soundtrack when she was identified as the nymph? How ignoble a death falling down a flight of stairs for anyone, but a trapeze artist? and a flyer no less. Its a profound irony.
    Had she simply expired just as the accursed and mythic nymph Echo did after being spurned of Narccissus’s love to his own vanity. A cardinal sin to rival the rage of Boss ending in death.
    There may be nothing to the Greek tragedy in common with Variete but I can’t help finding metaphors to the why of a profound irony.

    Was she not introduced as a mystery? Quickly becoming the home wrecker. Intoxicating the Boss from his wife and child, one he was initially violent to defend. She served as a catalyst reviving his exhausted passion to fly. Her charm again struck clear, at first glace from within her trailer, the doubts enshrouding another master who lost his brother to the act. The muse, both innocent and amoral is a willing prey to this ot master from stolen glances to stolen kisses under a flickering light. Cockholded, the passion which gave spark now passion only to cockhold him for another masters?
    This nymph

  • Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2015 | White City Cinema

    […] The new Blu-ray of the F.W. Murnau Foundation’s impeccable restoration of this classic German silent was mired in controversy due to the inclusion of a single musical-score option: a track by the British musical group The Tiger Lilies that features a prominent vocal throughout. Personally, I kind of like it but, even if I didn’t, this is still a must buy; it’s Variete, uncut and looking better than it probably has since the silent era. For those who’ve never seen it, the chief selling points are the heartbreaking and uncharacteristically subtle lead performance by Emil Jannings and the dazzlingly subjective cinematography, especially during the trapeze sequences, by the great Karl Freund (Metropolis). This reasonably priced German disc thankfully comes with optional English subtitles and is region free. There are no plans for a U.S. release. Full review here. […]

  • Dan O'Hara

    It seems that there are plans for a North American Blu-ray release of Varieté.

    Per the CriterionForum, at the screening of the film at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival it was announced that Kino Lorber is working on a Blu-ray release without the Tiger Lillie score.

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