04 May 2012

Notes On Cafe Elektric At Aero Theatre

Dietrich headlined, but Gruber stole the show
Tonight, I saw Cafe Elektric (now spelled Cafe Electric all over the Web, despite the signs visible on the joint itself in the movie) for the first time at Santa Monica's Aero Theatre, alongside over 50 other folks. Truly, pianist Gerhard Gruber was the star of the show, and I recommend that you attend any silent film screening he accompanies because he improvises in dialogue with the screen and the audience. Gruber has posted his Cafe Elektric compositions on YouTube, which gives you some sense of his work. My favorite scene of the film was the near-rape of Hansi because of Gruber's jolting arrangement.

Bah! I'm typing out of order. If you want a structured synopsis, read the one on the Silents Are Golden site, which summarizes exactly what I saw; however, the print the Aero screened continued after Gottlinger noticed the ring on Hansi's finger. Maybe the Silents Are Golden writer didn't wish to spoil any surprises, not that there are any. Also, read Ferdinand Von Galitzien's spiel; he's Blogger nobility, you know. I'll share a slightly cleaned-up and cleaner version of my jumbled notes, which I wrote right after watching the film:
  • The screen siren and style icon that we know Dietrich to be simply wasn't in this film. Her first dress is a pleated satin-looking thing that shows lots of wrinkles. The second dress, a lace frock that accentuates her drooping bosom. At least the director had the sense to cut to the legs. Thus, Josef von Sternberg wasn't the first Austrian to see their fetishistic appeal. Cafe Elektric's director, Gustav Ucicky, perhaps had his alleged father Gustav Klimt's artistic eye for the ladies. As for Ucicky, a young representative from the Austrian consulate gave a little written speech about the movie's meaning from an Austrian perspective because Ucicky went on to direct Nazi propaganda, yet Dietrich became an ardent anti-Nazi. I didn't see how that was relevant from any perspective, but at least the representative looked dapper.
  • Pre-Sternberg Dietrich clearly knew little about lighting because she let Max (played by Igo Sym) cast a shadow on her face at the construction site. Max is prettier than Dietrich's character Erni, especially his eyes, so all is forgiven. Dietrich's eyes, on the other hand, look like they've got cataracts. I blame the lighting, which washes out her face in most of the shots. Didn't Gloria Swanson complain about this in old movies?
  • Max manages to make a major career change--engineer to journalist--exemplifying the mobility of the bourgeoisie? Hansi (Nina Vanna), who is incidentally much more attractive and charismatic than Erni, has a hard time financially because of her history as a whore of sorts, although her professional ties could have helped her had she been less virtuous like Dietrich's character Fay Duval in Manpower. Maybe Dietrich should have played Hansi? 
  • This movie introduced actors' names in the intertitles as they appeared, which means I don't know how they were billed during this movie's initial release, but Hansi got more screen time than Erni. Undoubtedly, Dietrich only got top billing at the screening I saw because of her iconic status. In fact, a woman asked, "Where are all the Dietrich fans?" before the movie played, possibly because few people were pouring into the theater at that point. I should have shouted, "Me!"
  • The plot's quite easy to predict due to heavy-handed foreshadowing. Only an idiot wouldn't have realized that Max would be blamed for stealing the ring when Erni's dad Gottlinger (Fritz Alberti) caught him fighting with Erni at the construction site.
  • Gruber informed us that the film is incomplete, and it's unknown how Dietrich disappears. Does her dad kill her for stealing a ring for that lowlife pickpocket? Does she run away? Kill herself? What?
  • Forst is a bit of a ham but not annoyingly so. I laughed when he raised an eyebrow.
  • Hansi's a whore with a heart of gold. Max could do no wrong. Ferdl (Willi Forst's character) came off as a sadist. Why did he grapple Erni's throat like he was ready to strangle her every time he kissed her? Is this what Gruber meant when he said Forst and Dietrich couldn't control their real-life chemistry? I never knew Dietrich enjoyed rough play. Erni's dad had no redeeming qualities. Neither did Erni, but we pity her because she has grown up with an absentee father. Sounds like the type of psychological rubbish you'd expect from a country that produced Freud, no?
  • Money is a predominant theme in the movie. Is class indirectly a theme, too? Erni's father must be nouveau riche to make all that dough off construction, and the only person noble in spirit is Max, who must have been well-educated to have been an engineer. Also, Hansi talks about the difficulty of girls like her leaving a place like Cafe Elektric. It's true. No matter how hard Hansi tries, she can't shake the stigma of her lowly job. How Pretty Woman, and just as tasteless. That tacky porcelain doll looks like something you'd get on clearance at TJ Maxx.
  • Like in The Blue Angel, the titular place is a character in this movie. Notice the frenetic dancing? Were these people electrified on something more than the music and cocktails?
  • There was a time when "Black Bottom" was a dance and not Andre Leon Talley's nickname.
  • The ugly whore who looked a bit like Jerri Blank from Strangers with Candy (Vera Salvotti) was a comic genius. Must see more of her. 
  • About the depiction of prostitution in this flick, it's only hinted. All Hansi has to do is kiss old doctors on the cheek and make cow eyes and they toss bills her way. When she first meets Max, she nods at the hotel, where I suppose she would have given him a free ride? In fact, shots of that hotel appear recurrently, and Max incorrectly assumes Hansi is awhoring when he sees her merely standing in front of it. She should have--he wasn't bringing home the bacon at the time! Erni's the film's real tramp, though. We see her go to bed with Ferdl, wake up the next day in her slip, and put on her clothes behind a screen, stretching her leg into our view and the ugly whore's view, whom Ferdl has dumped for Erni.


  1. I love your observations about this movie!

    1. Thanks, and congrats on becoming a CMBA member. If readers actually like when I toss around my two-cents like this, I'll approach other Dietrich movies this way. I could do so with the likes of Manpower and Seven Sinners.

    2. Seven Sinners and Stage Fright are the films I could watch over and over again.I just read that Dietrich biographer Charles Higham has died.Paul

    3. I'm amused by your observations. The added two-cents make it a pleasure to read, I love your (whipping) wit! I would love to read more of this. If you feel like doing another silent, perhaps "Ich küsse Ihre Hand, Madame" (1929) might be something.

    4. Wow, everything that Marlene fans could ever want must be at their disposal now! Karine, a million thanks to you because I haven't yet seen this movie.

    5. You're welcome! Had no idea you haven't seen them, thought it was common knowledge that they are available on youtube. There is another one which you perhaps also haven't seen before "Die Frau, nach der man sich sehnt"(1929)


    6. I get so caught up in the uncommon knowledge that I often miss what pops up in the likeliest of places.;) Actually, I saw "Die Frau, nach der man sich sehnt" at the 2011 San Francisco Film Festival but probably didn't write much if anything about it here. I wouldn't have had anything to say anyway--I was wearing some thick wine goggles during that screening. You're giving me great ideas for future blog posts, but I must admit that I'm having writer's block at the moment. If you want to contribute, I think your English is great, and your thoughts will interest readers. I've given this blog the An Evening With Marlene Dietrich color treatment, but it still lacks a true lady's touch.

    7. I see! I'm glad to hear you get some ideas for writing, hope you're writersblock will be gone soon. Maybe it's an idea to watch the film without wine goggles, since I think this movie shows that MD should not only be credited to Josef van Sternberg. But Josef von Sternberg said himself that he didn't give MD anything that she not already had herself (as you can see in the silent films from 1929), he only highlited them.

      I always assumed that MissLaDiva is a lady... excuse me! I thought about contributing and maybe I would like to (have some ideas). Especially when I have time on my hands (like the last few day) I enjoy reading and writing a little, perhaps I'll get better in putting something on paper. I'm always stronger in conversations and immediate interacting, on paper I'm the rambling kind of type...

      PS I thought Marlene wasn't exactly crazy about "An Evening With Marlene Dietrich" (just teasing ;))

    8. missladiva makes Jo Carstairs look like Claudette Colbert!;) If you're interested in contributing, I can make you an author, and you can post whenever you'd like. Just email so that I can do so.

    9. hahah you crack me up, that's one fine picture you draw! I'll send you a mail one of these days.

  2. Paul, I got sick of writing death-posts, but I saw the news, too. I haven't read that Higham bio in years and don't have it, but I'll take a look at it at work and see whether I can say anything interesting. Honestly, I think a Dietrich fan who was around when it came out would have more valuable insight.

    1. Pas de quoi être triste : Bozon dit que Marlene détestait particulièrement la biographie de Higham. Chaque fois qu'un fan lui envoyait le livre pour une dédicace, elle se mettait en colère et jetait le bouquin ... Elle aurait été bien contente de l'enterrer ! Comme pour Visconti, Swanson...