THE STREET (Karl Grune, 1923)

A middle-class man, in a rut at home, dreams of the excitement of “the street.” One evening, foregoing dinner, he leaves wife and apartment to pursue his dream but is lured into misadventure by a prostitute. He is arrested for a murder in her apartment he did not commit. As he is about to hang himself in his cell, he is released, the real killer, one of the prostitute’s accomplices in conning, having been inadvertently exposed by the killer’s toddler. The film’s entire action occurs in a single night.

It is something of a miracle that The Street (Die Straße), with its melodramatic plot, should turn out to be so brilliant and one of the most influential films of all time. But both are the case here. Karl Grune’s silent German film, dispensing with title-cards to achieve an uninterrupted flow of images, captivates with its vision of Parisian night life. In the midst of experiences pitched between dream and reality, the protagonist gets more than he bargained for and retreats. His return to his wife at the end of the film encapsulates both German defeatism and the overreaching nature of German idealism that his dreams portend, the combination of which, for Germany and the rest of the world, would have disastrous consequences. Grune may not have set out to provide political or social analysis, but, in the context of unfolding history between Germany’s World War I defeat and the rise of Nazism in Germany, his film isn’t limited by its intentions. Nor should its being set in France dissuade us of its penetration of the German psyche.

The film’s formal accomplishments, however, owe everything to Grune’s intentions. In this light, let us begin by addressing the film’s portrayal of those dreams which propel the protagonist into the street. These are presented as a chaotic series of alarming images. This is film analyst Siegfried Kracauer’s description of the passage, in From Caligari to Hitler (1947): “Shots of rushing cars, fireworks, and crowds form, along with shots taken from a roller coaster, a confusing whole made still more confusing by the use of multiple exposures and the insertion of transparent close-ups of a circus clown, a woman, and an organ-grinder.” The series of shots immediately follows the protagonist’s looking into the street from a window, but, of course, all this cannot actually be what he sees. Rather, as Kracauer puts it, the protagonist sees an “hallucinated street.” What is disclosed, then, is the depth of his dissatisfaction with his home life, and with the routine of his life in general, because in and of itself the series of “hallucinated” images would not inspire any reasonable person’s departure from a secure environment. The expressionistic images that Grune has conjured are fraught with danger—the danger that the protagonist will indeed find once he enters the world of the street. This isn’t academic irony. Rather, by not heeding the menacing nature of his own dreams, but propelling himself instead into them, the protagonist reveals his recklessness, his lack of self-control.

However, the film doesn’t stop thematically at a point of individual psychological disclosure. Instead, the protagonist’s lack of self-control is suited to another, more widely resonant theme: lack of self-determination—the lack of control over the course of his own life that the protagonist shares with the rest of us. For Germans, the problem was enormously deepened by the degree to which ordinary German lives were being affected by the economic burdens imposed on Germany by World War I victor nations.

The plot itself, in which the anonymous protagonist is manipulated and conned by the prostitute and her two male cohorts, speaks to his inability to control his own destiny. In a sense, even prior to that, the protagonist’s dissatisfaction with his home life implies the same thing; there is a clear discrepancy between his lot in life and the life he would prefer to live. His solution to remedy his dissatisfaction is counterproductive and ironic, because his venturing into the world of the street, rather than freeing him, entangles him in a nightmare that clarifies his inability to direct his own course and confirms his dissatisfaction when he returns to his wife, defeated, at the end of the film. The omnipresent silence of this silent film beautifully expresses his lack of self-determination by robbing him of a voice. He cannot even speak up for himself—a point that the general absence of dialogue on title-cards reinforces. Moreover, a central visual symbol for the extent to which “the street” controls the protagonist is the gigantic neon sign of eyeglasses outside the optometrist’s office, which lights up when he passes by. He doesn’t see it, but it “sees” him. In a sense, the protagonist is blind as well as mute, his life and his senses at the mercy of forces beyond his control.

As it happens, there is a character in the film who is literally blind: the grandfather of the toddler, the killer’s son. Throughout the film, characters (again, as in a dream) assume symbolical overtones that relate to the protagonist’s disposition and predicament. The slinky, glamorous prostitute, the antithesis of the protagonist’s stocky, fastidious wife, a bourgeois who sweeps clean a crumbless table, is his fantasy version of his wife—a dream that turns into nightmare. The man whom the protagonist is accused of killing is his doppelganger, a revelation, perhaps, of a self-destructive tendency. The toddler is the child the man feels that he is, someone entirely unable to direct the course of his life. Released from jail, the man returns to his wife, setting his head on her shoulder as a child might when seeking consolation. All this has the effect of fragmenting the protagonist’s personality and undermining its integrity, and this outcome, again, has the effect of taking his life out of his hands.

One of the most notable aspects of The Street is its complex, intricate mise-en-scène, such as in the streets, at night, with bristling human activity in the background while a car curves around in front of the camera in the fore-. Humanity often appears as flickering lights entering and sometimes emerging from deep shadows. (Grune’s brilliant cinematographer is Karl Hasselmann.) This mise-en-scène contributes to another of the film’s outstanding elements: the blend of reality and artifice—the “streets” are detectably studio-bound sets—that moves the material toward abstraction and generalization. Indeed, it is this method that invites us to interpret the characters symbolically, as psychic fragments of the protagonist.

Perhaps the film’s most extraordinary and heartfelt image comes near the end of the film: a wide-angle shot of the man, released from jail, walking home through the street at dawn. There is no lingering magic to the street that we see here; it is simply a pedestrian means for getting from one point to another. Yet it still controls his life, as it takes the man back to where he didn’t want to be in the first place. The aura of defeat that also accompanies him denies the image and the scene that follows, the man’s reunion with his wife, of any sentimental suggestion that he is now content with his lot, having learned of the worse alternative. The man goes home because he has nowhere else to go.

A shot very much like it, but one of weariness rather than defeat, occurs in Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitaï’s stunning Kippur (2000). But the influence of The Street goes well beyond subsequent borrowings of its vast array of terrific shots. Its City of the Mind is essential as a concept to countless important films, including F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), John Ford’s The Informer (1935), Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) and Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967).

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