Some pleasures of silent film are less cerebral than others. And I must admit, I love a good movie orgy. Give me women tabletop-dancing in short skirts, give me lurid shots of slavering men, have them pass around enough prop liquor to give all the extras cirrhosis. G.W. Pabst’s The Love of Jeanne Ney (Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney) opens with a great example, featuring cigarettes, tambourines, bottles both full and empty, a portly officer mounting a barrel, women shedding dresses and sliding down banisters—and women’s legs in unripped silk stockings, implying that the ladies who could obtain such luxuries in a war zone probably aren’t ladies at all.
It is the Crimea toward the end of the Russian Civil War, as an intertitle helpfully informs us, and these are White Russians without much to celebrate, as they are about to be overrun by the Reds, but evidently “we’re losing!” was as good an excuse as any. Pabst’s camera is as giddy as the guests, slinking through the crowd and peering down from a landing. Shut in his room with a bottle and a funny-looking cigarette is black-marketeer and all-around heel Khalibiev, played by Fritz Rasp. Though he was by most accounts a nice fellow in real life, the camera always found something devious in Rasp, and here his whiskers and questionable teeth combine to give Khalibiev an uncanny resemblance to a rat. Watching the party unfold, a smile playing across his handsome face, is Andreas Lubov (Uno Henning), whom we swiftly discover is a Bolshevik there to prepare the ground for the eventual White retreat. Also shut away from the revelry are Jeanne Ney (Édith Jéhanne) and her father (Eugen Jensen), an ostensible diplomat who is secretly spying on the Bolsheviks.
Jeanne is in love with Andreas, but fate intervenes when Andreas’s colleague kills her father after the espionage is discovered. She escapes the turmoil in Ukraine to flee to Paris, there to stay with her unpleasant uncle Raymond Ney (Adolf E. Licho) and her blind cousin Gabrielle (Brigitte Helm). Khalibiev follows Jeanne to Paris, where he schemes to marry Gabrielle and steal her inheritance and whatever else he can find in her father’s office—and as Raymond is a detective, there is much to find, including a priceless diamond. Andreas has also gone to Paris to raise more money for the Bolsheviks and, not incidentally, reunite with his love.
The film is based on a 1924 novel by Ilya Ehrenburg, a prolific Soviet journalist, novelist, and memoirist who frequently traveled to western Europe. The novel was originally supposed to have been adapted in Soviet Georgia, but Germany was first past the post and, in 1927, The Love of Jeanne Ney was shot at the Ufa studios in Neubabelsberg and on location in Paris, with Fritz Wagner as cinematographer. Ehrenburg was invited by Pabst to observe filming, and Pabst added to the overall impression of fidelity to detail by consulting the Soviet embassy in Paris and (presumably via other less official channels) filling the opening debauch with authentic White Russian exiles. Ehrenburg, once he got over the initial dazzlement that seems to hit everyone during a movie filming, wound up disliking the results, “feeling that [his novel’s] political topicality and tragic intonations were diluted by an exaggerated melodramatic plot and the imposition of a happy ending,” wrote critic Sergei Kapterev.
In some respects, Ehrenburg was not wrong. The movie introduces the life-and-death struggle between the revolutionaries and the old guard, only to lose interest in all that almost as soon as Jeanne’s father expires. Andreas is certainly the nicest conceivable Bolshevik; one suspects the real article would have eaten him for breakfast. His money-raising assignment in Paris is a thread soon dropped as Jeanne reappears and Khalibiev gets busy trying to frame his rival for a murder.
Nor is the movie especially interested in the love story, title or no title. Before Jeanne leaves for Paris, there is an exceptionally beautiful scene of the lovers reunited in the midst of pounding rain. Jeanne forgives Andreas almost wordlessly, and then they embrace. There isn’t a trace of overplaying, the scene is pure emotion. But there is little of this sort of thing later on, once we hit Paris. More typical is a scene where they walk together through the teeming mass of Paris’s famed Les Halles, becoming smaller amid the throng. The exposition could have been conveyed another way, and even less is there a reason for this moment to take place in Les Halles. It’s there chiefly because it’s vibrant and cinematic. Once you accept that idea about, well, basically everything in the movie, The Love of Jeanne Ney becomes a wonderful experience.
Most of the scenes where Pabst springs to vivid life involve the smaller characters. Sig Arno, familiar from dozens of both German and later American movies, has a memorable scene where he’s nearly upstaged by a parrot, although the bird gets the worst of it. To a modern audience, Brigitte Helm is by far the biggest name in the cast; at the time, she had only one other film to her credit, but that film was of course Metropolis. Gabrielle is gentle and forlorn, with unruly blonde hair that forms a halo; almost the first thing she says is, “I’m so lonely.” It’s an extravagant and gestural performance, but also touching, more so than the quieter and more natural work of Jéhanne. (Jéhanne also played the female lead in Raymond Bernard’s The Chess Player from 1926, and, then in 1929, his Tarakanova, after which she seems to have disappeared. The Internet Movie Database quotes Bernard, without attribution, as claiming Jéhanne died as sound arrived.)
It is evident that Uncle Raymond is neglecting his daughter and cares only for money, a point driven home with his biggest scene. Having retrieved the aforementioned diamond, and in line for a $50,000 reward from its American owner, Raymond drifts into a reverie about his riches while his daughter sobs herself to sleep. Pabst shows us how the miserly detective imagines the cash being handed to him, how he envisions himself counting it. Raymond’s face contorts into ecstasy, then madness as Pabst speeds up the film until the bills are flying by. Then at last, Raymond releases the vision, grabs the sides of the door to his safe and (there is no nicer word) humps it. There are few more literal images of capitalism run amok this side of Greed.
The Love of Jeanne Ney was made two years after The Joyless Street and two years before Pabst’s best-known masterpiece, Pandora’s Box; all three films cast a sharp eye on the treatment of women. Jeanne finds herself being assaulted not once, but twice—first by her loathsome uncle, and then by Khalibiev. Then there is the role of Margot (Hertha von Walther), one of those minor Jeanne Ney characters that Pabst seems to love. She is a barmaid and a sometime paramour of Khalibiev and is at first unruffled by his obvious criminality. Then he confesses to Margot that he intends to strangle Gabrielle after they are married. A horrified Margot runs away and shows up the next day to warn the girl. Margot kneels, frantically trying to convince Gabrielle she’s in danger; the scene combines realism (the familiar difficulty in separating someone from an abusive lover) with melodrama in a way that seems to sum up the whole movie’s appeal. Bristling with beauty and grotesquerie, ping-ponging from theme to theme and major to minor character and back again, Jeanne Ney shows that Pabst was a fascinating filmmaker even without Garbo or Louise Brooks.
Presented at SFSFF 2019 with live music by the Guenter Buchwald Ensemble (Guenter Buchwald, Frank Bockius, and Sascha Jacobsen)