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Love of Jeanne Ney, The
One of the most enthralling silent movie experiences at UCLA Film School was seeing David Bradley's print of The Love of Jeanne Ney, a 1927 melodrama starring two greats from Metropolis in secondary roles, Brigitte Helm and Fritz Rasp. Every scene is rich in atmosphere and fluid in camerawork. The first act of director G.W. Pabst's movie takes place during the Russian Civil War (1919-1921 or so), with great detail in scenes of crowded entertainment halls and revolutionary headquarters. The least significant extra or prop made a contribution to the atmosphere.
Scenes in The Love of Jeanne Ney flow as smoothly as do the silent dramas of Josef von Sternberg. The suspenseful romantic melodrama Jeanne Ney makes no particular claim to great art or importance. Its source is a pot-boiler novel by Soviet revolutionary Illya Ehrenburg, whose life experiences brought him into contact with top historial and artistic names in Bolshevist Russia and the art haunts of Paris. Ehrenburg reportedly repudiated Pabst's movie, for dropping all of his political rhetoric.
The Love of Jeanne Ney stars a marvelous personality by the name of Édith Jéhanne, who we are told died just a couple of years later, 'about the time that talking pictures were coming in.' Jéhanne would look perfectly natural in a movie made in 2020. The movie is in some ways artistically chaotic, in that it mixes more than one acting style and even bounces between genres -- political conspiracy thriller, docu-like street scenes, intimate romantic melodrama. Rich characters drift in and out of the narrative. The story plays well and comes to a satisfying conclusion, even if a score of subplots are just left unresolved!
In the Crimea during the Civil War, neutral French businessman Andre Ney (Eugen Jensen) is doing spy work for the White Russians. His beautiful daughter Jeanne Ney (Édith Jéhanne) falls in love with Andreas Labov (Uno Henning), a handsome Russian. Unbeknownst to her, Andreas is a Bolshevik spy. The unscrupulous apolitical scoundrel Khalibiev (Fritz Rasp of Spies) needs money, and so sells a fake list of Red agents to Andre. Jeanne and Andrea find out each other's true identities only after an unfortunate shooting. The Red Russians overrun the city. Helping Jeanne return to Paris is a ranking Party officer who takes a fancy to her, Zacharkiewicz (Vladimir Sokoloff, much later of The Magnificent Seven).
In Paris, Jeanne is taken in by her Uncle Raymond (Adolf Licho), the proprietor of a shady detective agency. Her cousin Gabrielle (Brigitte Helm) is blind, and easily spooked. Raymond Ney's main operative Gaston (Sig Arno, 'Toto' in The Palm Beach Story!) cleverly recovers the lost diamond of a White Russian expatriate, for which the greedy Uncle Ray anticipates a 50,000 franc reward. Andreas arrives in Paris, to deliver money to fund a Communist labor campaign in Toulon. But the penniless Khalibiev also comes to town, posing as a wealthy White Russian. He soon launches a series of outrageous crimes against the Neys, including a murder he wants to pin on his arch-rival, Andreas.
Jeanne Ney starts slowly but soon picks up speed. The Crimea section is all about smoky dens of White Russian revelers with their wild drinking and loose women. The handsome Andreas and Jeanne are seen in flashback cavorting in the countryside, and in the present trying to meet in a staggering downpour. The audience is at all times ahead of the characters. Jeanne doesn't realize that Khalibiev is responsible for her father's death, or that he is fooling Uncle Raymond by offering to marry his 'defective' daughter Gabrielle. Khalibiev assaults Jeanne, and then preempts her protests by convincing Raymond that she came on to him. Then he steals what he needs from Jeanne's purse to frame Andreas for the murder he's about to commit.
Khalibiev succeeds in his outrageous villainy because Raymond is impressed by his phony credentials, and because nobody believes the women that he's abusing, not Gabrielle, Jeanne or Margot (Hertha von Walther), a barmaid to whom Khalibiev has boasted of his murderous plans. Jeanne believes that Khalibiev is a friend, even as he leads her into a trap as bad as the one he set for Uncle Ray.
G.W. Pabst appears to have let this unrestrained melodrama run where it will, without imposing too many formal restraints. After the wild and violent episode in the Crimea, Paris combines dank offices and rooms with impressive location shooting in real Parisian train stations and a giant street market. The shooting style won't stand still either. Pabst pans wildly over the orgy-like White Russian drink-fest, and then films the entrance of the Red Army as if Pancho Villa were coming to town. Andreas and Jeanne's soggy farewell in the rain contrasts with their happier times. In a hilltop park in Paris, parallel-cuts link the lovers as they rush down side-by side lanes for a big romantic reunion.
Édith Jéhanne and Uno Henning's performances are as naturalistic, without a bit of romantic overstatement. On the other hand, Brigitte Helm is caught up in expressionist histrionics, with a constant look of hypnotized anguish on her face. Uncle Raymond lives in his own expressionist mindstorm of greed. Late at night, he obsesses over the recovered diamond, swooning in orgasmic delight as he counts invisible money.
Fritz Rasp was never a subtle player. As Khalibiev he pulls so many grotesque faces, and is so transparently EVIL, we wonder why anybody trusts him for a minute. Sig Arno's crafty detective Gaston is a neat little can-do guy. His sly faces are amusing but never overstated. Pet owners may object but I found the scene where he attacks a parrot to be hilarious. Andreas has a fellow undercover Bolshevik operative, Poitras (Hans Jaray), who helps him deliver money to Toulon -- I have a feeling that his part must have been shortened.
Jeanne Ney plays extremely well as beautifully-conceived scenes, which in this case is more than enough -- the story seems at all times alive and 'happening.' We have to surmise that a lot of the original narrative was thrown out, either to jettison the Communist sub-plot or simply because Pabst simply wanted to focus on the romantic couple. Zachariewicz and Andre's former servant (Mammey Terja-Basa) enter as important characters but are never seen again. The final showdown between Jeanne and Khalibiev is really powerful. The 'closure' for Jeanne is warmly poetic, but everybody else's problems are left in flux. What will happen to Gabrielle, Poitras, Gaston? Did G.W. Pabst cut down a longer continuity, or did he just throw out plot complications that didn't interest him?
There's enough potential story incident here, with so many interesting characters to develop, that Jeanne Ney could easily be expanded to a multi-hour miniseries. But how to find actors as ideal as those seen here?
The Kino Classics Blu-ray of The Love of Jeanne Ney is a fine restoration (2015) of this under-appreciated classic. Most of show is in extremely good shape, much better than the confused print we saw back in film school. A second encoding of the film is the American cut, which is about a reel shorter and renames a number of characters. The story is hurried along by tossing out 'atmospheric' scenes -- the lovers' leisurely visit to the street market, and a meal shared with strangers on the Toulon-bound train.
The release copy reads 'music adapted and orchestrated by Bernd Thewes for the German version.' Andrew Earle Simpson provides a music score for the US version. English subs are provided for the German version's original title cards, which alter a name or two as well. Eddy Von Muller's commentary collects quite a bit of information on Jeanne Ney, but also dispenses a lot of general information on Weimar cinema, the arc of German expressionist filmmaking, etc.
G.W. Pabst's direction in The Love and Jeanne Ney and Diary of a Lost Girl is more fluid than that in his better-known Pandora's Box. That show mostly brilliant, but some of its episodes have a static feel. Jeanne Ney is the least 'important' of the three and its story is erratic, but within individual scenes it can claim a more fluid cinematic 'flow.'
The Love of Jeanne Ney
Supplements: -Audio commentary by film historian Eddy von Mueller -Restored German release version with music adapted and orchestrated by Bernd Thewes -U.S. release version with music by Andrew Earle Simpson.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: May 29, 2020
Text (C) Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson