Film Noir had antecedents in the German Expressionist cinema of the 20s and French Poetic Realism in the 30s, but there are movies from other national cinemas that also explored the corrosive aspects of modernity.
Three films that have recently come my way are in this vein. One is a German silent and the other two are later films from Finland. All feature little known actresses with a stunning cinematic presence.
While Asphalt (1928), a late silent film from German director Joe May, is perhaps not in the same class as the UFA films of Fritz Lang and other Expressionist luminaries, this modest effort is firmly grounded in the bustling and bohemian life of 20s Berlin. The opening title sequence is a rhythmic documentary survey of the bustle of the modern city punctuated by pneumatic drills breaking up roads. Even tar and cement have a limited life in this burgeoning metropolis. The camera then focuses on a young traffic cop following his banal occupation. But not for much longer. On his way home he gets mixed up with a glamorous gamin who has tried to lift some jewellery from a jeweller. Seduction and circumstance soon envelope the protagonists in a dark web of passion and tragedy. The luminous ex-pat American actress Betty Amann plays the erotic femme fatale with a panache that is sensual yet hesitant, and totally sincere. A gritty melodrama that strives to greatness.
In 1938 Finnish director Nyrki Tapiovaara made Stolen Death (aka Varastettu kuolema), an elliptical thriller about a revolutionary political cell in Helsinki. Impatient for action the protagonists embark on an ultimately futile and tragic attempt to buy weapons from an arms dealer. A dark erotic triangle frustrates the actions of the fervent group of naïve young radicals. Romance, subterfuge, and betrayal are played out on urban streets and in deep focus, and mostly as a silent film, with many enigmatic scenes serving to enhance the intrigue. The moody expressionist cinematography and the tragic scenario pulsate with poetic realism. The doomed heroine played by Finnish actress Tuulikki Paananen has a presence as disarming as Garbo. A great film.
Director and writer Teuvo Tulio produced a string of Finnish melodramas in the 30s and 40s. Last year I reviewed The Way You Wanted Me (1944 aka Sellaisena kuin sinä minut halusit), a dark frenzied tale of a fallen woman, hurtling along roads of melodrama from an idyllic first love on a rural island to the hell of Helsinki bars and bordellos. From youthful abandon in the sun to a night of decrepit darkness, a young woman’s journey to perdition is one of relentless betrayal by men and by fate. Tulio’s Cross of Love (1946 Rakkauden risti) is yet another torrid melodrama of rural idyll and innocence destroyed by metropolitan decadence. What distinguishes this film is the sublime performance of Regina Linnanheimo as the tragic victim, and a tour-de-force opening sequence around a tempest at sea. The chaotic expressionism of wild scenes featuring a madman in an isolated lighthouse on a stretch of treacherous reef, jumps off the screen with a violence that has you mesmerised. A must-see.