BFI Southbank, London
10 October 2017
(Warning: Contains spoilers)
Midday on a Tuesday afternoon is perhaps not the most apt time to be settling down to watch a film on the seedier side of late 1920s Viennese night-life and yet there is a more than respectable audience turn out for another screening from the ‘Archives’ strand of this year’s London Film Festival. The film we are here to see is a newly restored version (courtesy of Filmarchiv Austria) of director Robert Land’s 1929 melodrama Little Veronika (Die Kleine Veronika), aka Innocence (Unschuld)).
The film opens in the Tyrol mountains of Austria where the adolescent Veronika (Käthe von Nagy) lives with her parents in a remote village. Invited by her Aunt Rosi (Maly Delschaft) to Vienna for her confirmation she excitedly travels by train and is met at the station where she marvels at her aunt’s expensive clothes and jewels. Unbeknownst to Veronika, her aunt works as a prostitute along with other the women in her apartment block.
The next day, Veronika attends her confirmation after which she and her aunt visit a pleasure garden. Working at an ice cream kiosk, Veronika recognises Franzl (Otto Hartmann), a boy from her home village whom she likes. Veronika’s aunt asks him to join them later for dinner. While having a drink in a bar, Veronika and her aunt are seen by Ferdinand (Harry Hardt), one of her aunt’s clients, who joins them, to her aunt’s initial discomfort. When Franzl arrives, he takes Veronika to a funfair before returning her to the bar.
Rosie and Ferdinand then take Veronika to a nightclub where they meet up with other friends. Veronika attracts the attention of several of the men in the nightclub. One in particular, a rich aristocrat (Karl Forest), joins the group and proceeds to get Veronika drunk. Whilst leaving, Veronika is separated from the rest of her group and the aristocrat takes her home where they spend the night together.
The next morning, Aunt Rosie realises that Veronika is missing and reports her disappearance to the police. Meanwhile, in the aristocrat’s apartment Veronika professes her love for him and begins planning their future together. But to get rid of her, he gives Veronika money and tells her to return to her aunts from where he will collect her. Back at her aunt’s the other prostitutes rebuke and insult Veronika for her actions and she suddenly realises her true situation and what she has done. Her aunt decides to put her on a train for home with orders not to say anything to her parents.
Increasingly downcast on the journey home, when the train stops at a signal, Veronika gets off and begins to walk, almost in a daze. But Franzl is on the same train and seeing her, he gets off and follows. When Veronika comes to a river she walks in intending to commit suicide. However, Franzl saves her and when she tells him that she wants to die, he replies that she cannot die until she has lived.
Little Veronika is very much a film of contrasts, between the simple rural life of the Tyrol and the urban grandeur and splendor of Vienna and between the innocence of Veronika and the decadent and immoral lifestyle of her aunt and her friends. But more than that it is a story of the loss of innocence as the young Veronica, little more than a child in both age and maturity, is cynically and callously seduced by a much older man who then, despite her protestations of love, wants nothing more to do with her.
But before we even get to the seduction, the first question that leaps from the plot concerns the intentions of Veronika’s aunt and the reasons for her inviting her niece to Vienna. Are these all above board, simply to give Veronika the confirmation that her parents can’t afford. Certainly there are signs that the aunt seeks to conceal her profession from Veronika, for example, by getting her maid to remove the more salacious pictures that adorne the walls of her apartment. She was also embarrassed at running into a client at the pleasure garden while Veronika’s prayers before bed appeared to invoke in her a sense of guilt. Yet could she really be hoping to hide the origin of her expensive clothes and jewellery from her niece or what goes on in her apartment. So, is the film hinting at a more sinister reason for bringing Veronika to stay with her?
But whatever her aunt’s intentions, it immediately becomes clear as soon as she meets up with her friends and has a few drinks that she is incapable of protecting her niece. And it is here that the rich aristocrat makes his move, deliberately getting Veronika drunk while remaining sober himself and separating her from her aunt. It is then that the film really strikes home. Looking back at silent cinema from a contemporary film perspective there isn’t often something that comes across as truly shocking (rare examples might perhaps include the sadistic violence of Behind The Door (Dir. Irvin Willat, US, 1919) or the overt racism of Birth Of A Nation (Dir. D W Griffith, US, 1915) ). But seeing the two pairs of shoes at the bedside in the aristocrats apartment , those of the older man and those of Veronika who, given that she is in Vienna for her confirmation is probably no more than 14 or 15 years old, is just such a moment.
Given its subject matter, Little Veronika was not a film that could have been made (or indeed shown) in the United States in 1929 where the Hays Office and the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was becoming more influential in restricting the subject matter of US films. Yet in mainland Europe at least, there were few restrictions on films addressing more risqué subjects such as prostitution. And in tackling its subject matter Little Veronika does so without veering in any way into sensationalism. Aunt Rosie and the other working girls are portrayed in a sympathetic light, neither immoral or debauched. Indeed, when Veronika returns with the aristocrat’s money, not realising what this signifies, the other prostitutes assume an air of moral superiority, condemning her for what she has apparently done at such a young age. And while Veronika’s plight could have been the catalyst for a tragic and melodramatic conclusion there is instead a sense of optimism and hope for the future.
But there is more to Little Veronika than a well plotted and gripping story line. When the curator of the Austrian Film Archive which restored the film describes it as Austria’s ‘most beautiful silent film’ there are few grounds for argument. Not only is the film gorgeously shot, it also stands as a historic document with some stunning location shots of a Vienna now long vanished. In addition to the superb location shooting there are other beautifully composed and shot scenes, not least the clever effects used as Veronika gradually succumbs to the champagne she is given. Also effective is the striking contrast between the multi-exposure shot of her cheerful train journey into Vienna and her altogether gloomier journey homewards.
Then, of course, there are the uniformly excellent performances from all the main cast. Kathe von Nagy is superb as Veronika. Although from today’s perspective it is perhaps difficult to believe anyone could be quite that naive on arriving in the big city, this is after all a film made almost a century ago, when the contrast between rural and urban life was probably a lot greater than it is now. Nagy imbues the young and innocent Veronika with a happy-go-lucky zest for life. But when her world is suddenly turned upside down she is equally convincing in her portrayal of someone suddenly overcome with horror at the reality of her situation, disconsolate and drifting towards suicide. I had previously seen Nagy in the early Italian silent neo-realist drama Rotaie (aka Rails, Dir. Mario Camerini, It, 1929) where she was equally good in her portrayal of a working class woman suddenly caught up in the high life. Deciding on an acting career against the wishes of her parents Nagy was helped to her first role, a supporting part in Männer von der Ehe/Men Before Marriage (Dir. Constantin J. David, Aust, 1927) by Alexander Korda and soon came to be regarded as one of the best up-and-coming actresses of the late 1920s. Moving successfully to talkies she successfully starred in numerous French and German films during the 1930s. Remaining in Germany during the Second World War but without acting, she made just two more films when the war ended, before moving to America where she died in 1973.
Maly Delschaft is also excllent as Aunt Rosi. Delschaft had a long career in both silent and sound films. In the silent era she is probably best known for playing Emil Jannings’ niece in The Last Laugh (Dir. F W Murnau, Ger, 1924) and later as Emil Jannings’ long suffering wife in Variety (Dir. E A Dupont, Ger, 1925). Successfully making the transfer to sound films she continued to make films in Germany throughout the Second World War. Resident in East Germany at the war’s end she continued her film career there until her retirement in the early 1960s and eventual death in 1995 at the grand old age of 96.
Director Robert Land remains a little known figure and few of his works were believed to have survived. However, some years ago Filmarchiv Austria launched a large international search amongst overseas film archives in the hope of uncovering works thought lost, the high point of which was the rediscovery of a complete print of Little Veronika, which they have now restored beautifully. Land was active in the theater in Austria from 1911 and began making films in 1914 when he founded his own production company. He began directing feature length films after the First World War, mainly in Austria during the 1920s and then in Germany in the early 1930s. But being Jewish he was forced to move on when Hitler came to power. He made further films in Austria and Czechoslovakia until 1938 but then disappeared. Some sources say he died the same year while trying to escape Europe, others believe he survived until 1942. Whatever the truth, on the strength of Little Veronika alone he clearly had considerable talent and his early death remains a tragic loss.
Providing a live piano accompaniment to the film was John Sweeney. Talking with him after the film he said that he had been caught in two minds as to how to approach the accompaniment, whether it should be from Veronika’s innocent perspective or from the more knowing perspective of the audience and in the event felt he had somewhat unsatisfactorily fallen between the two. However, from my point of view I felt that his playing had in fact matched the film beautifully, catching Veronika’s carefree naivety in the first half and then subtly emphasising her shock and dejection as events unfold. And given the warmth of the applause at the film’s conclusion, that seemed to be the view of the audience as a whole.
(NB Little Veronika is not available on disc or on-line at present. However, given the effort involved in the restoration one can but hope that it becomes more widely available in the near future. )