Leopold Jessner, Paul Leni

Scen.: Carl Mayer. F.: Karl Hasselmann, Willy Hameister. Scgf.: Karl Görge, Paul Leni, Alfred Junge. Int.: Henny Porten (la domestica), Fritz Kortner (il postino), Wilhelm Dieterle (l’amante). Prod.: Henny Porten-Film GmbH. 35mm. L.: 1109 m. 18 f/s. Bn.

T. it.: Italian title. T. int.: International title. T. alt.: Alternative title. Sog.: Story. Scen.: Screenplay. F.: Cinematography. M.: Editing. Scgf.: Set Design. Mus.: Music. Int.: Cast. Prod.: Production Company. L.: Length. D.: Running Time. f/s: Frames per second. Bn.: Black e White. Col.: Color. Da: Print source

Film Notes

When Henny Porten, popular star of the German cinema, became her own producer in 1921, she launched an ambitious project and engaged three key collaborators: Leopold Jessner, the noted director of expressionist theatre in Berlin plus scriptwriter Carl Mayer and set designer Paul Leni. Her acting partners were Fritz Kortner, star of Jessner’s Berlin State Theatre, and the handsome Wilhelm Dieterle from Max Reinhardt’s ensemble.
The result, Die Hintertreppe, was a success on the artistic level but flopped at the box office. An anonymous reviewer in “Das Tage-Buch” wrote: “Jessner has done more for Henny Porten than any director before … All routine is wiped away, every movement is experienced and therefore alive.” And Alfred Kerr, the dreaded theatre critic who hardly ever wrote about films, praised the film as “wonderfully subdued”; Herbert Ihering called it “masterful”, and Kurt Pinthus “the most human film ever seen in the cinema”.
How could the combination of artists with such different profiles work out so well? Contemporary critics were divided as to whether this was a naturalistic drama or an expressionistic one. So were film historians later on. Paul Leni’s sets of the postman’s basement dwelling, the back staircase that leads as a servant’s entrance to the kitchen of the bourgeois flat, and the courtyard in between, is naturalistic in approach. But the lighting, accentuating and dissolving the geometry of the building, awakens an expressionistic uncanniness.
The same applies to Kortner’s embodiment of the shy, hunchbacked postman, who in his infatuation and desperation, facing the competition of the burly fiancé, resorts to wicked tricks. There is always a very real core in his characterisation, but it is exaggerated by the slowed-down acting and stylised expressive gestures. The camera makes us perceive this world as it must appear to its inhabitants as hopeless. However, the stylistic intensification creates a distance that calls this perspective into question.

Martin Girod

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