One of the last great German Expressionist films of the 1920s, Asphalt is an extraordinary melodrama of crime and seduction. Directed by Joe May and starring Gustav Frolich and the sensual Betty Amann – who could probably seduce most people if she had to.

With live piano accompaniment by Andrew Youdell, and an introduction by Cyril Edwards

Germany 1929, 95 minutes

Programme Notes

Berlin, 1920s. An expensively dressed woman steals a precious stone from a jeweller’s shop, but she is seen, followed, and arrested. On the way to the police station she cries all over her escort, spinning yarns about her desperate circumstances. But he’s a respectable policeman, and son of a policeman, and her tears and blandishments are to no avail. Well, not at first. In a parallel sequence we are introduced to an apparently respectable bank robber in Paris, whose photo stands on her dressing table. And eventually the two men meet…

Director Joe May, one of the leading German film makers of the time, wanted to make films that appealed to everyone; movies that qualified as art while satisfying a more popular desire for entertainment and a good tale. He advocated action, with ‘a little mixture of humorous scenes as well as intense sensation’. In Asphalt, the central story of crime and the eternal triangle is interspersed with intense, expressionistic images of the street, in particular of the road-making gang that gives the film its name. While the lovers act out their story the world outside goes on, not so much brutal as ignorant and indifferent.

May warned against too much sensation: ‘each sensation that is there only for its sake and does not follow on from the logical action of the movie has lost its legitimacy and will be found a nuisance’ And some critics have found the street scenes, not so much a nuisance as irrelevant and not well enough integrated. Most, however, think they help lift the film above the conventional romantic melodrama and, along with the skillful camera work, use of montage, and, not least, the delectable Betty Amann, make it one of the last great German expressionistic works of the 1920s.

The woman: Betty Amann
The policeman: Gustav Frolich
Director: Joe May
Photography: Gunther Rittau