Inspired to translate naturalist literature and theater into a cinematic realism fascinated by corruption and decadence after von Stroheim, Renoir felt the need to exercise his ambition and engineered the first Franco-German coproduction at a time when the German film industry was arguably the most sophisticated in the world, attracting the likes of Eisenstein, Hitchcock and Sternberg from abroad. The occasion was Renoir’s adaptation of Emile Zola’s 1880 novel about a talentless actress who relies on her sex appeal to climb the Parisian social ladder. With a sphinxlike face and louche deportment, Catherine Hessling perfectly incarnates Zola’s archetypal femme fatale. Shot on soundstages in both Berlin and Paris, there is a touch of German expressionism about the film as well, between the stylized sets—which are minimalist rather than distorted—and the mannered performances of both Hessling and Werner Krauss.
Live Musical Accompaniment by Bertrand Laurence