The Gloved Era of Urban Chaos

Paris may have been the capital of 19th century modernity, but it was Berlin that gave birth to the gloved era of urban chaos. Unlike Paris, London, or even New York, Berlin at the turn of the 20th century was not just about the radical transformation of the city, but the birth of the city itself. The streetscape was a popular theme in German literature, visual art (e.g. Berlin Alexanderplatz or Kirchner’s Nollendorfplatz), and silent cinema. New techniques of speed and montage eliminated the passivity of the spectator by placing him or her directly into the frenzy of the crowded street. No matter that there was no sound, the metropolis was in motion. The stimulation was at times overwhelming, as were the passions of being confronted, even bombarded with the seductions of urban capitalism.

Chaos, desire, and disorder are urban phenomenon, and are responded to with order, control, and rationality. Desire arose from the visual stimulation, the temptation of material things in shop windows, new opportunities for physical proximity to members of the opposite sex. Disorder therefore arose not only the actually existing urban condition, the traffic, the construction, but also from the passions and desires–the possibilities–produced within the mind.

All this comes together in  Asphalt, the 1929 German film about a police officer whose life spirals into chaos after becoming entangled with a female thief. Gustav Fröhlic spends his days in the middle of a busy Berlin intersection directing everything from people, to cars, to horses and carriages. We see that he is equally precise and obedient in his home life: he comes home, removes his white gloves, eats his meal with his family, goes to bed and repeats the routine with the efficiency of machine technology.

Gustav’s spotless glove of order becomes unclean when he catches a beautiful young, impeccably dressed woman (Betty Amann) stealing a diamond from a jewelery shop. Realizing the implications of her actions, Amann breaks down and tries to appeal to the emotions and sympathies of the men around her.

“I’m behind on my rent,” she weeps (technically this is silent), “I should be thrown out tomorrow into the streets.”

So overcome by her beauty and plight, the owner of the jewelery store forgives her. Betty smiles to herself, thinking she is free to go. Gustav however insists on upholding the law, grabs her arm, and escorts her out.

In the police car, Betty once again tries to win Gustav over. She weeps onto his shoulders to let her go: “I have such fear of the streets!”

The camera focuses on Gustav, whose eyes reveal an expression somewhere between intrigue, pity, and, ultimately, indifference.

Gustav’s ability to control the chaos of the street is due to the fact that he simply has never actually succumb to it. His white gloves protect him from chaos and disorder of everyday experience, they grant him the power of objective rationality. The metaphor is extended further–into his passions. Betty asks to go to her apartment so that she may get her papers to bring to the police station. He considers her request and eventually agrees.

As they walk up to her apartment she continues to weep and plea to let her go. He refuses, walks to the window and waits for her to collect her things. As soon he looks away from her however, she locks the door to her bedroom and runs into his arms. Her attempts to seduce Gustav are so strongly rejected it is almost comical to watch. So strong is his sense of control, his refusal to go against what is right, that Betty must, almost literally, rape Gustav. There are no subtleties in this film; its explicit seduction and blatant sexuality must be interpreted as an extension of the city itself.

The urban chaos of the early 20th century was in large part due to the increased presence of unaccompanied women on the street. Woman was the sex that was undisciplined. It was thought that, because she was not in control of herself and her passions, she was a danger to both herself and the city itself. When Betty claims to fear the streets, we may interpret that in a number of ways. If she afraid of her passion, her inability to resist the temptations of luxury goods? Although her life is out of control, (gambling, shopping, a luxury apartment she can no longer pay for), by appearing out of control she is, in fact, in control. She was in control of the situation with the owner of the jewelery store, and now, after the seduction, she is in control of the situation with Gustav. He eventually loses himself to the pleasure of physicality. Afterward, he is calm, human, humbled, and embarrassed by his actions. He rips up the ticket, leaves the apartment, and returns home to his parents, where his dinner waits on the kitchen table. He tries but cannot eat, there is too much chaos within his mind. She on the other hand is unfazed by what has just happened. She eats her meal in bed and drifts off to sleep.

As the film progresses, both characters lose control and fall for each other so that the story becomes a somewhat classic love story, with Weimar Berlin as the backdrop, that third character that brings the two central characters together. Whether or not you’re a fan of the conclusion, director Joe May’s ability to capture the chaos of the Berlin streetscape is undeniably brilliant.

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