Directed by Dimitri Buchowetzki
Released in German by Ufa 1921; released in the U.S. by Goldwyn Pictures 1923
Cast: Pola Negri (Sappho), Johannes Riemann (Richard de la Croix), Alfred Abel (Andreas de la Croix), Albert Steinruck (George Bertink), Helga Molander (Maria Garden), Otto Treptow (Teddy), Elsa Wagner (Richard's mother), Elinor Gynt (Tanzerin)
The sensuous Sappho betrays Andreas de la Croix for his boss, George Bertink. After visiting his brother, Andreas, in an insane asylum and learning he is there because of this woman, Sappho, Richard determines he must see her. When he meets her, the two fall in love, although he is not aware she is the one who caused his brother's insanity. George, now the rejected one, determines to win her back. Sappho and Richard are vacationing at a seaside resort when George finds them and tells Richard that it is Sappho who is responsible for his brother's condition. Richard leaves and goes back home to his mother and childhood sweetheart, Maria. On the day of the wedding, Richard finds he can't live without Sappho. He hurries back to the city to find her. In the meantime, Andreas has escaped from the insane asylum and is intent on seeking out Sappho to kill her. Both men find her at a huge "Carnivale" at the theatre. The two lovers are once again reunited in each other's arms in a room upstairs. However, Andreas interrupts their reunion.
Made in 1921, "Sappho" was one of Pola Negri's last German films. However, it was not released in the United States until 1923, well after the re-release of three of her more popular German films. "Carmen" was made in 1918 but retitled "Gypsy Blood" and released in the U.S. in 1920. "Madame Du Barry" was made in 1919 but retitled "Passion" and released in the U.S. in 1920, and "Sumurum" was made in 1920 and retitled "One Arabian Night" for release in the U.S. the next year. These had solidified her popularity with American audiences well before her first American-made film, "Bella Donna" (1923), and the release of "Sappho," retitled "Mad Love," that same year.
"Sappho" was directed by Dimitri Buchowetzki whose transition to America is not as well-known as some foreign director imports such as Ernst Lubitsch or Mauritz Stiller, yet he directed Negri in two of her 1924 American releases - "Men" and "Lily of the Dust" - as well as some other major stars like Norma Talmadge, Laura La Plante and Mae Murray. Buchowetzki's last American film was in 1926. He returned to Germany where he continued directing for a short time before he died in 1932 at only 46 years of age. Buchowetski's direction of Negri in "Sappho" is commendable, the star giving a seductive performance at one moment and then a very impassioned, emotional performance at another time. Very typical of the German films at that time, "Sappho" is a dark love story with unrequited love, insanity, and death all intermingled - and although it's not imbued with originality, Negri, as she often does, takes it above the ordinary for a satisfying and engaging viewing experience.
Negri's introduction in the film is appropriately underplayed and sultry. The introduction takes place when Richard gets his friend, Teddy, to take him to the club where Sappho can be found. Richard is determined to meet the woman who has driven his brother (his cousin in the American release) mad. Before Sappho comes out, Richard views what he considers a disgusting scene of a woman dancing on a table while men gather around and cheer her on. He sneers, "Curse you women of love who destroy us body and soul!" Sappho enters the room at that very moment and overhears the remark. She calmly walks up to Richard and smugly asks, "Do you believe all women to be bad?" She then asks him to escort her home, to which he agrees, but, at this point, Richard is unaware this is the woman responsible for his brother's insanity.
Any movie is enhanced by the presence of a good villain, as any story must have a protagonist and antagonist. Albert Steinruck, a respected German actor of the time, plays George Bertink, Sappho's lover, and the one for whom she discarded Andreas. Bertink is a heavy-set, wide-faced man, well cast for the role. We are to understand that Sappho is a "kept woman," "selling" her beauty in return for the luxury provided by wealthy men - and Bertink is very wealthy. Although Steinruck does provide us with a villain of sorts, it is disappointing that his character is not more threatening. We anticipate that he will be so in at least one early scene. Richard is in the apartment with Sappho - an apartment that Bertink pays for and provides for her. He comes in very sternly, glaring stolidly at the couple, and slowly raises a pistol at them. The moment is tense and well-played by Steinruck. Then, Sappho walks slowly over to him and takes the gun without any resistance. What is somewhat disappointing is that this is the most threatening he appears in the movie. Certainly his build would make him intimidating to Richard, but the only retaliation that he takes for the loss of his lover is to tell Richard later in the story that Sappho caused his brother's insanity. Steinruck's character could have certainly contributed more drama to the story.
Riemann's character, Richard, is somewhat one-dimensional, only required to waver between a dignified, moral stance that he knows he should take against this "woman of love," and his uncontrollable passion for her. Riemann is to be commended for downplaying his performance, however, - never over-gesticulating or reverting to excessive expressiveness - it's a solid portrayal. He deserves extra praise, too, for his reaction when his insane brother has locked himself in a room with Sappho and - wild with fear over the danger to his love - tries first to break down the large, heavy doors, then turns to the hundreds of revelers from a balcony above the floor for help. His fear and desperation are convincingly played.
This is in contrast to Alfred Abel's take on insanity which borders on being a parody. He is constantly raising one eyebrow high above the other, chewing the ends of his fingers, and generally skulking about like a villain from a Victorian melodrama. He does have one exciting scene, however. Aware that Sappho and Bertink have been having an affair behind his back, he drives a large open touring car on curving mountain roads with Sappho and Bertink in the back seat. He can see their lovemaking in the rear-view mirror and begins to drive faster and faster. When Sappho and Bertink realize what is happening, they begin to panic. A wagon loaded with large logs is stopped on a curve in the road ahead, and they are sure to crash into it. However, at the last moment, Andreas pulls the brake. Sappho and Bertink get out of the car, and, in almost comical fashion, Andreas stands up in the car, points at them knowingly, waves his arms wildly and then falls in a faint over the back of the seat.
As noted, the film is brought above the ordinary by Negri's performance; however, her character is not developed as well as it could have been. Harrison's Reports noted in their review, "It is supposed to be a tragedy, but it is not -- the leading character's death does not necessarily make a tragedy; the heroine's death, instead of arousing the spectator's compassion, creates in him disgust." (1) This is not an altogether unfair assessment. We welcome her redemption at true love finally coming her way in the form of Richard. However, when Richard learns of her part in his brother's insanity and leaves her, she returns immediately to the apartment that Bertink provided for her. We feel little sympathy when the butler tells her, "Your ladyship, you do not live here any longer. Mr. Bertink has made other arrangements." Yet we are supposed to feel sorry for her that she has taken a modest room (emphasized by Teddy's humorous trudge up four flights of stairs to visit her room) far removed from the luxury to which she has been accustomed. The sympathy, if any, is short-lived, though, when Teddy tells her Richard is to be married. We would assume she would rush to stop the marriage, pledge her love for Richard or be overcome with remorse. Instead, she is infused with anger and a strong resolve to forget him - and we later see her at the "Carnivale" with Teddy very much enjoying the festivities. This makes the viewer question the depth of her love for Richard - or has she never changed from the Sappho we saw at the beginning of the film?
The film's ending is well-directed by Buchowetzki, providing a Griffith-type race as we wonder if Richard will reach Sappho before the crazed Andreas does. Riemann and Negri provide a top-notch dramatic moment when she looks down from a box seat in the theatre, where an older man is kissing her arm, and sees Richard among the throng looking up at her with an angry scowl on his face. Her passion for him returns, and she pulls angrily away from the old man, runs out and up the stairs to an empty room with Richard close behind her. Inside the room, she leans against the wall, bosom heaving at the thought of her lover returning through the door. Then, she goes to a mirror acting as if she is interested in attending to the blonde wig she is wearing. Richard comes in, shuts the door behind him - pauses for a moment, then grabs her arms forcing her to face him and angrily demands, "Was that you new lover up there in the box?" Negri was the queen of portraying smugness and impassivity. She pulls her arms away from him, rubs the wrist he has so roughly grabbed, then with her typical coolness asks, "What business is that of yours?" and then almost sarcastically adding, "By the way, when is your wedding?" This is Negri at her best. Of course, when Richard falls to his knees, and wraps his arms around her waist, she cannot resist - caresses his face and lifts it so she can see him. He vows, "I love you and only you!"
One is taken with the warmth, emotion and passion of the exchange between the two with Riemann handling his part commendably and Negri exuding her typical sultry sexiness. Unfortunately, the ensuing drama digresses to something less effective. Andreas finds the two lovers and comes in trying to be creepy and threatening. Rather than confront him, Richard backs up in fear, opens the door on the opposite side of the room and takes Sappho's arm to get her out. However, Andreas rushes toward Richard, pushes him out the door and locks it. Sappho is trapped with the crazed Andreas! The scene misses its potential. It would have done more for Richard's character had we seen him try to fight off Andreas - not recoil in horror. Even if Andreas had bettered his brother somehow, the believability would have been greater. Pushing Richard out the door was all too easy. Plus the drama that could have been wrung from Sappho's death is not realized. Andreas chokes her to death (not very convincingly) in the room before the crowd can break it down. A more satisfying (though admittedly no more original) ending could have had Richard knocked out accidentally in the scuffle, Andreas making off with Sappho (preferably in a faint), and Richard awakening to arouse the crowd in a climactic chase through the huge theatre or even into the streets (a la "Phantom of the Opera"). One has to agree with Harrison's Reports that the death of the heroine does not necessarily make a tragedy. The film's end would have been better served with the death of Andreas, and the two lovers reunited.
Criticisms aside (one can find things to criticize in the best of films), "Sappho" is worth seeing, as the viewer will enjoy one of Negri's early performances, and one of her best. The roles obviously became better when she came to America - "Barbed Wire" (1927) is a must-see performance and one of the best silent films made on World War I. Negri's portrayal of a French girl in love with a German prisoner of war is outstanding. "Sappho," though, is of interest from somewhat of a historical standpoint. It gives us a view of Negri at the height of her popularity in Europe, just before coming to America two years later. Negri claims a place in history, if for no other reason than she was the first major European star imported to America and set the stage for others such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich.
Negri was different in many ways from American actresses of the time - most of whom represented the Victorian view of American womanhood - although the "flapper era" was on its way in. Historian James Card wrote, "Not until the end of World War I did American filmgoers realize there was a deeper character existing within hot-blooded womanhood. . . and it came from the stunning image of the Polish actress Appolonia Chalupec - known to the marquees of the world as Pola Negri. As Madame DuBarry and as Carmen, Negri brought a wholly different kind of aggressive woman to the American film audiences. The Negri women were sexy in every contemporary sense of the word. They were neither frail nor caricatures of either evil or purity." (2)
Film historian William K. Everson said, "Negri seemed to symbolize the European sophistication that was being absorbed into American film. As a screen type, she was earthy and tempestuous. . ." (3)
Negri's life outside her films was great fodder for the media, too, from her supposed engagement to Charlie Chaplin to her melodramatics at the death of Rudolph Valentino - whom she referred to in later years as "the love of my life." Film professor and historian Jeanine Basinger said, "Pola Negri may have been the most colorful star ever to appear in silent films. Her over-the-top antics off-screen seem to have totally obscured her actual career, and certainly her talent. She was an excellent actress, capable of playing with real passion and fire . . ." (4)
Ernst Lubitsch, who directed her both in Germany and America, probably brought out the best in her of any director. It is obvious he understood her "passion and fire" more than anyone else. Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman said, "". . . Lubitsch chose to be amused by Negri's turbulent temperament. 'I believe she was one of the most vital persons I have ever known,' he would say of her in 1928, 'combining those two most important requisites - natural color (the art of being talked and written about) and a highly developed and sensitive artistic instinct.'" Lubitsch went on to praise her talent, though. "Above all other considerations, she is a great actress. In a certain type of parts (sic), she is the foremost dramatic artiste of this generation." (5)
Unfortunately, in her autobiography, Negri makes only two slight references to "Sappho." She was involved in a tempestuous affair with a wealthy bon vivant, Wolfgang George Schleber, and gives several pages to her relationship with him and her attempts to obtain a divorce so she could marry Schleber. At one point, she mentions going on location for "Sappho" to Heringsdorff on Ost See and the ensuing jealous row that took place when Schleber canceled a promise to spend the weekend with her there. Her only mention of "Sappho" at that time is that "the filming was very arduous and done under conditions that were trying to us all" - no further explanation. Her only other mention of "Sappho" is that, soon after filming was completed, Lubtisch visited to ask her to make another film together. (6)
Interestingly, "Sappho" was handily panned by some publications while receiving high praise from the respected New York Times. For example, Photoplay said, "Pola's playing has abandon, but it is too broad. There is nothing of the subtlety she achieved time and again under Lubitsch. The male roles are all over-acted, and the handling of her various episodes is highly inadroit." (7)
Variety was much harsher in its criticism. "The picture in design and appeal is about the grade of a Universal program with Ivan Abramason trimmings; in technical quality it is below the grade of American pictures of 10 years ago. It is just a trashy, sex tangle, crude in idea and absurd in execution. The only thing the picture has is some massive settings and a few mob scenes. Its drama belongs in the Family Story Paper class, which is two steps below the ten-twent-thirt grade." Taking a stab at Negri herself, Variety said, "Pola Negri, with her atrocious German make-up on, may be the Berlin idea of an irresistible siren, but her work is too coarse for Broadway. All she does is to reproduce the Theda Bara type that America grinned off the screen some years ago." (8)
Harrison's Reports was critical, but did give "Sappho" some credit for being one of her better pictures. "To show this picture is an imposition upon the public. Although much better than all Pola Negri pictures released in America except 'Passion,' it is not the kind that would appeal to American picture-goers. There is nothing pleasant in it." (9)
Yet, The New York Times reviewer was obviously taken with Negri and the production. "These old French stories of tempestuous passion, of wild women who finally fall in love with some three-dimensional youth from the provinces and then have to pay the penalty for their past, may seem out of date today . . . And the chances are that you don't like that kind any more. But the odds are that you will like this one. Because whenever an actor or actress makes any character, no matter how improbable or stereotyped, really come to life on the screen, you are bound to like his or her story. You see somebody alive, you see human emotions revealed, you get inside someone's heart and mind, and you can't help liking that. . . It's to Mme. Negri, first of all, that the story owes its vitality, therefore, she makes it, as well as her own character, seem real for the time being." The reviewer went on to offer kudos to the other performers, as well. "The others in the cast - Germans unnamed on the program - are also excellent, and the direction of the picture by Dimitri Buchowetzki is exceptionally good." (10)
Fortunately for silent movie fans, Bright Shining City Productions has released an excellent version of "Sappho" for the home market in a three-DVD set that also includes "The Polish Dancer" (1917), "The Yellow Ticket" (1928) and "Eyes of the Mummy Ma" (1918), treating the viewer to four of her early European releases. According to the set's liner notes, when "Sappho" was released as "Mad Love" in the U.S., it was in a censored version; however, the offering we have here is the complete version. The original piano scores for each feature by Rick DeJonge are excellent, and, although the quality of the prints varies somewhat, they are a pleasure to watch. Bright Shining City Productions has also brought the acclaimed documentary "Pola Negri: Life Is a Dream in Cinema" by Mariusz Kotowski to DVD, providing a must-have complement to the feature film set.
(1) "Mad Love" review. Harrison's Reports.
March 10, 1923.
(2) Card, James. Seductive Cinema: The Art of Silent Film. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
(3) Everson, William K. American Silent Film. New York: De Capo Press, 1998.
(4) Basinger, Jeanine. Silent Stars. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
(5) Eyman, Scott. Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1993.
(6) Negri, Pola. Memoirs of a Star. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc. 1970.
(7) "The National Guide to Motion Pictures Saves Your Picture Time and Money: Photoplay's Selection of the Six Best Pictures of the Month." Photoplay Magazine. May 1923. pg. 64.
(8) "Mad Love" review. Variety. March 8, 1923.
(9) "Mad Love." Harrison's Reports.
(10)"Mad Love" review. The New York Times. March 5, 1923.
Copyright 2011 by Tim Lussier. All right reserved.
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