Institut Francais, London
10 April, 2022
(Warning: spoilers throughout)
In another of those annoying silent film fixture clashes, today we have to choose between The Fall Of The House Of Usher (1928) at the Barbican or Cafe Elektric 91927) at the Institut Francais. Having seen Usher recently at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival but never having seen Cafe Elektric, the decision really made itself and off we sped to the French Institute.
Cafe Elektric opens with petty thief Fredl (Willi Forst) stealing a woman’s handbag. With the money from the handbag Fredl goes to a nightclub where he meets Erni (Marlene Dietrich), daughter of rich industrialist Gottlinger (Fritz Alberti). Erni is attracted to Fredl and gives him her phone number although Fredl is more interested in Erni’s money.
Meanwhile, at the salubrious Cafe Elektric, prostitutes Paula (Vera Salvotti) and Hansi (Nina Vanna) are socialising. Fredl attempts to take Hansi’s money but she refuses. Paula, jealous of Fredl’s apparent earlier relationship with Hansi, offers him her money instead. Once again flush with money, Fredl arranges to meet with Erni. She in turn breaks her date with Max Stoger (Igo Sym), an architect who works for her father, to meet Fredl but Stoger sees the two of them set off together. Downcast, he stops at a cafe where he shares a table with Hansi and they strike up a conversation. There is an immediate mutual attraction and they go to see a film together. As they part, Hansi tells Stoger that she works at the Cafe Elektric and he says he may see her there.
Fredl and Erni spend the night together. The next morning he tells her that he has gambling debts which he must pay off urgently and asks her for money. At her father’s office Erni steals money and a ring that Gottlinger was going to give to his mistress. She is seen by Stoger but he says nothing. Erni gives the money and the ring to Fredl.
Back at Cafe Elektric, Hansi can think only of Stoger and escaping the life she leads. When Ferdl arrives he seeks to resume his relationship with Hansi and gives her the ring that Erni stole for him. When Fredl is suddenly recognised by the woman whose handbag he had previously stolen, he has to flee but Paula, infatuated with Fredl, pays off the woman to keep quiet.
In his office, Gottlinger concludes a business deal with Herr Zerner (Albert Kersten) and the two agree to meet later at Cafe Elektric. Gottlinger then discovers his money and ring are missing. He suspects Stoger of the theft. Fredl and Erni are together in Fredl’s apartment when Paula arrives. Fredl says he has no time for her now, throws her out and Paula vows revenge. Fredl and Erni plan an evening at Cafe Elektric.
Later, at Cafe Elektric, in revenge Paula has tipped off the police that Fredl will be there and they lie in wait. Stoger arrives to see Hansi and she tells him of her desire to leave the cafe and never return. As Stoger goes to get her a drink, an intoxicated Gottlinger accosts Hansi. When Stoger pulls him off, Gottlinger sees the stolen ring and demands to know who gave it to her. Just then, Fredl and Erni arrive and Hansi points out Fredl as the source of the ring. In the resulting struggle, Fredl is arrested and Gottlinger realises that it was his daughter who stole the ring. Thinking that it was Hansi who tipped off the police, Fredl promises revenge as he is dragged away. Stoger and Hansi agree that she will never return to Cafe Elektric and she leaves the ring on a table where it is swept off onto the floor and forgotten. Gottlinger and his daughter argue and he throws her out onto the street.
[There then appears to be a missing segment] When we pick up the story, Stoger and Hansi are living together but he has lost his job with Gottlinger, cannot find work and they are increasingly destitute. Fredl has also been released from prison. When Hansi meets Herr Zerner by chance he tells her to send Stoger round to see him that evening to discuss a job. But when Zehrer arrives instead at her door, Hansi realises it is a ruse to get Stoger out of the way. However, she manages to fight Zerner off and he angrily departs.
Increasingly desperate for money, Hansi meets an old friend and he gives her some cash. But Stoger, seeing Hansi receiving the money outside a hotel, assumes that she is once more working as a prostitute
[Sadly, there the film ends, missing its final reel. However, inter-titles recount that Stoger leaves Hansi when he thinks she has gone back to her old life. Hansi is forced, in turn, to return to Cafe Elektric where she is stabbed by the now released Ferdl, but survives. Stoger, who becomes a reporter, eventually learns the truth, returns to Hansi and helps her find a new life together.]
With Cafe Elektric, director Gustav Ucicky and writer Jacques Bachrach provide us with yet another fine example of Weimar era film-making with its dissection of the interactions between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ of 1920s Vienna society. For the poor and those who have fallen on hard times, Cafe Elektric is a desperate place, a place for the pimps and prostitutes to meet clients and for petty thieves and con-men like Fredl to seek out new victims. But for the rich, like Erni and her father it is a place of thrills and excitement, as they go slumming and rub shoulders with the lower elements of society. But in this moral tale, an individual’s position in this social hierarchy is not necessarily fixed. Hansi craves to escape from her circumstances and thanks to her association with Stoger looks to have achieved this by the film’s conclusion. Yet for Erni, her relationship with Ferdl looks to have dragged her down and, having been thrown out by her father, will she too end up working at Cafe Elektrik.
The film opens with location shooting on Viennese city streets and the chase sequence as Fredl runs off with the handbag is well staged. Most of the rest of the film is studio bound but no less effective for that, with some nicely staged and very atmospheric night-time scenes of rain drenched streets. Interior shots, particularly the Cafe Elektric itself are equally well done, effectively conveying both the raucous energy and edgy feel of the place. But the fact that the film looked so good perhaps shouldn’t comes as a surprise. Although it was only Gustav Ucicky’s third film as director, he had long experience as a cinematographer working frequently with director Mihaly Kertesz (Michael Curtiz) on big hits such as Fiaker Nr. 13 (Cab No. 13)(1926) and Der Goldene Schmetterling (The Golden Butterfly) (1926) as well as the infamous Sodom And Gomorrha (1922). But as well as the big ticket scenes, Ucicky was equally effective in drawing out nicely nuanced performances from virtually all of the ensemble cast. Born in 1898 in Vienna, Ucicky was rumored to be the illegitimate son of Austrian painter Gustav Klimt although this has never been confirmed. He joined Austria’s Sascha Film Production Company in 1916 as a camera assistant and worked his way up to directing. In 1929 he moved to the UFA Studios in Germany, becoming one of their top directors but by the end of the 1930s he was making propaganda films for the Third Reich. However, this does not appear to have impacted on his post-war career and he continued directing until his death in 1961.
Willi Forst, in only his first significant film acting role, absolutely nailed the character of Ferdl, suave but sly, caddish, calculating and occasionally brutal. Here was a man not ashamed to cry false tears, not above trying to steal the pianist’s tips and always more than willing to pimp from the working girls. If Cafe Elektric had been remade by Hollywood in the 1950s he could only have been played by George Saunders! My only doubt over his character (albeit speaking as a man) was what on earth women saw in him? Although Forst got good reviews for his performance, it would not be until the sound era that his career really took off, when his excellent singing voice made him a huge success in German language musical comedies (both as star and director), a genre that became known as Wiener Filme (Vienna Films). However, his star had faded by the end of the 1940s as film tastes changed.
Also in her first major acting role was Marlene Dietrich playing Erni. Supposedly she got the part on Willi Forst’s recommendation and when Ucicky was having second thoughts Forst stated “If Dietrich goes, then I go”. She got the part! If the intention with Dietrich’s character was to inject a little sex appeal into the film then this certainly succeeded. But she also puts in a believable performance as the rich socialite, of questionable morality who is seemingly infatuated at the prospect of sampling the wilder side of life. Although in later life Dietrich would deny having made any silent films, this was something like her fourteenth film appearance and the first in which she picked up positive notices. But it would be another three years and five more starring roles in silent film before she was ‘discovered’ by Josef von Sternberg who gave her her first speaking role in The Blue Angel (1930). And the rest, as they say, is history.
Although Dietrich got top billing in Cafe Elektric, her performance was to my mind eclipsed by that of Nina Vanna who brought a delicate fragility to the role of Hansi, desperate to escape the life she had been reduced to. The scene in the street-side cafe as she tries to chat up Stoger is a delight while her fear of constantly overbearing men is almost palpable. Belarus born Vanna was a considerable star in British films of the early 1920s (Lady Jane Grey (1923), Lucrezia Borgia (1923) etc) before going on also to make films in Germany, Austria and France. But she made only two sound films before retiring.
Playing Stoger, probably the only half decent male character in the film, Polish born Igo Sym didn’t have a lot to do, other than look depressed most of the time. Sym made his film debut in Vampires of Warsaw (1925) (considered a lost film although apparently a murder mystery, sadly without any actual vampires). But he is now known primarily for his time as a Nazi collaborator in Warsaw during the Second World War and his eventual assassination by the Polish Resistance.
Also worth a mention lower down the cast are Vera Salvotti as Paula, as the somewhat tragic hard-bitten prostitute infatuated with Ferdl, and Fritz Alberti as the industrialist Gottlinger, particularly at the realization not only of his daughter’s shortcomings but of his own as well.
So while Cafe Elektric may be of cinematic interest in providing the first significant roles for both Dietrich and Forst prior to them going on to become major stars, it is also a film well worth seeing in its own right. It offers a believably realistic picture of Viennese society in the Weimar era, is effectively directed and well acted by an ensemble cast. The missing scenes and lack of a final reel do not significantly hinder appreciation of the film although they do leave a number of questions frustratingly unanswered. In particular, what became of Erni, and of Ferdl and did the lost ring ever play a subsequent role in the plot? And so, with that, I am just off to check the loft in search of that elusive final reel. Fingers crossed.
Piano accompaniment for Cafe Elektric came from John Sweeney. What with the melodrama, the dance hall scenes and raucous cafe society there was a lot to test his abilities. However, Mr Sweeney as ever came through with an accompaniment which not only melded nicely with the on screen happenings but also enhanced our overall enjoyment of the film.
Cafe Elektric is available to buy on disc. There is also a good quality version on You Tube although it lacks any musical accompaniment or translations of the German inter-titles.