German cinema between the wars—in the wake of the Versailles Treaty and the crippling debt that came with it, the impending spike in inflation, and the trauma of military defeat—was often populated with fallen men, particularly vulnerable to the forces of modernity and inadequately equipped to navigate the new world of the postwar metropolis. The performance that Eugen Klöpfer delivers as the Husband in Lupu Pick’s Sylvester (New Year’s Eve), not unlike his earlier portrayal of the bumbling, repressed philistine in Karl Grune’s Die Strasse (The Street, 1923), is no exception. The seeming excess of pathos-laden despair and tragic resignation in the face of a bitter decision between his dual loyalties to the Wife (Edith Posca) and the Mother (Frida Richard) reflects, as Siegfried Kracauer famously argued in his groundbreaking study From Caligari to Hitler, a failure in maturity of character and, by extension, a failure of the German fledgling democracy at large.
The story, written by Carl Mayer, who had collaborated with Pick on a handful of films before Sylvester, unfolds in the final hour of New Year’s Eve. A boisterous and increasingly drunken crowd fills a low-rent tavern, where vast quantities of frothy beer and festive punch are tossed back with reckless abandon, and on the opposite side of the street, elegantly dressed members of the German upper crust waltz away the night in a glamorous hotel ballroom. Guido Seeber’s camera, showing early signs of mobility by using a tripod on rails, tracks in repeatedly on an oversized clock that anchors the illuminated town square, teeming with crowds, to indicate the approaching hour. Adjacent to the tavern is a squalid, sparsely decorated one-room flat occupied by the Husband, the Wife, and their slumbering baby whose presence, in a rickety carriage, is only intermittently felt.
At the start of the film, things look upbeat enough, with the Husband and Wife working harmoniously, in the tavern serving guests and at their home preparing for the holiday festivities. But any hopes of an intimate late-night supper together—the camera lingers on a small table bedecked with two place settings—are quickly dashed with an emotion-laden disruption posed by the arrival of the Husband’s mother, first captured in haunting profile, vaguely reminiscent of the vampire’s shadow climbing the staircase in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), outside the frost-covered kitchen window. No need for backstory, or expository titles, as the mutual contempt of the wife and her mother-in-law is made palpable, verging at crucial junctures on outright violence. Unable to choose between the two all-or-nothing expressions of suffocating love, amplified in twin portraits hanging on the otherwise bare wall of their flat, one of the man alone with his mother and the other a photo with his wife on their wedding day, the Husband sees no other out than taking his own life.
Both Pick and his wife Posca were formally trained actors who, like many members of that generation, found their way from the theater to cinema. Similarly, Sylvester fits into a relatively brief, but visually significant subgenre of Weimar cinema known as the Kammerspielfilm, which took its name from its theatrical counterpart, the Kammerspiel (chamber play). These films tend to emphasize emotional and psychological intensity over elaborate, or even linear, narration—thus the complete absence of any intertitles—often set in a confined domestic space, where the smallest of gestures are legible as they are frequently drawn from the milieu of the German petite bourgeoisie.
Pick and Mayer had already produced what was widely thought to have been the earliest entry to the subgenre, Scherben (Shattered, 1921), which bore the confident subtitle “Ein deutsches Filmkammerspiel” and lay much of the groundwork for Sylvester. In addition, Mayer had made an international name for himself in cowriting Robert Wiene’s highly acclaimed early horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920); a year later he supplied the scenario for Pick’s horror film Grausige Nächte (Nights of Terror, 1921). All of Pick’s early films as director were made for a production company that he helped found in 1918, Rex-Film, which was folded into a separate film corporation upon Sylvester’s release.
Around the time of the film’s premiere at the Ufa-Theater am Kurfürstendamm on January 3, 1924, just days after New Year’s Eve, Pick commented on the scenario by Mayer, insisting that it “may well have intended to disclose brightness and darkness … within the soul itself, that eternal alternation of light and shadow characterizing the psychological relations between human beings.” Mayer had a notable penchant for writing “instinct-possessed characters,” in Kracauer’s apt formulation, and for portraying the larger social spheres, often at odds with each other, that they represent. Much of the film, then, is less about story than about the milieu, or “Umwelt,” and about atmosphere or “Stimmung,” both rather central to the Kammerspielfilm tradition.
In Pick and Mayer’s collaboration, there is indeed “an Expressionistic taste for violent contrast,” as Lotte Eisner points out in The Haunted Screen, her trenchant analysis of films of the period. In Mayer’s script, the contrast between the two primary locations could not be any clearer: “Tavern. Gloom. Smoke. Dim lighting,” he writes of the first comparatively drab, unadorned space; “Smoke. Dancing. Music. Lights” of the ballroom on the opposite side of the street (which he insists should open “in Glanz und Licht,” bathed in splendorous light). We even catch quick glimpses of the street life, beggars hawking postcards and cigarettes, and a war cripple, propped up on a single crutch, grinding an organ, the kinds of figures that haunted the contemporary canvases of Otto Dix and Georg Grosz.
Working together with his exceptionally talented editor Luise Heilborn-Körbitz, Pick uses cross-cutting in such a way that almost prefigures the dialectical montage soon to be employed by Soviet filmmakers. Pick thus highlights the distinct social spheres and their incongruity with respect to the human tragedy taking place in their midst. In the digital 4K restoration, jointly undertaken in 2018 by the Deutsche Kinemathek and the National Film Archive of Japan, we have shots of the dark and ominous sea that form bookends to the film, and which are also intercut at particularly dramatic moments throughout. We are, however, missing additional scenes of the church cemetery and the heath that once rounded out the natural elements in the original print. Still, the juxtaposition of the ephemeral and ultimately fragile moment of euphoric celebration and breast-beating mourning chronicled in the hour leading up to the New Year with the more permanent, universal elements of nature—the pithy epigraph from the Tower of Babel story helps set the tone in this regard—adds to the tension and to the film’s overarching oppositional structure.
The German Kammerspielfilm tradition didn’t last much longer after Sylvester, but parts of it appear to have traveled across the Atlantic and to have reemerged in Hollywood. If one thinks, for instance, of Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), his stunning debut at Fox, scripted by Mayer, it’s not hard to see several striking affinities: George O’Brien’s performance of the Man reflects a similar blend of wounded masculinity, self-pity, and immaturity to Klöpfer’s depiction of both the Husband in Sylvester and the repressed philistine in Die Strasse; likewise, the stark contrast between the dull tedium of the couple’s homelife and the spectacular allure of the city—whose sets were designed by Rochus Gliese and a twenty-something Edgar G. Ulmer—helps give the film its emotional and even erotic power. Years later, a number of these core ideas and their early stylistic manifestations on screen also helped to define that remarkable cycle of American movies that came to be known as film noir.
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Timothy Brock conducting the San Francisco Silent Movie Orchestra
Before the screening, Deutche Kinemathek was presented with the 2022 SFSFF Award for commitment to the preservation and presentation of silent cinema