Polizeibericht Überfall (1928)

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*. The labels we put on artistic movements and periods are of limited utility. You can use a term like expressionism, for example, and this conjures up a stylized mise-en-scène distorted to reflect strange psychological and emotional states, and which flourished in Germany in the 1920s. But just applying the label doesn’t really tell you much that isn’t obvious anyway, and it may in some cases only confuse things.
*. Which brings us to the New Objectivity. What was this? You may wonder what the Old Objectivity was but I can’t help you there. I think in the 1920s everything was new. In any event, the sources tell us that in film it was a movement associated with realistic settings and characters and a minimum of stylistic flourishes (in other words, no fancy camera work or editing). The emphasis was less on emotional states than the social and material world. It was anti-expressionism.
*. The sources also tell us that Polizeibericht Überfall (which you’ll see variously translated, often as Accident, but seems to be best captured in English as Police Report: Assault) is considered to be a representative work of the New Objectivity, a style that its director Ernö Metzner was closely associated with.
*. All of which tells us next to nothing, and some of which is probably misleading. I don’t see much in this film aside from the general subject matter that suggests documentary realism. Then again, I’ve heard critics who insist that Metropolis exemplifies the aesthetic of the New Objectivity as well, so I guess it’s an elastic label.
*. Instead of a matter-of-fact police report of some shady dealings among members of Berlin’s not-quite-working class, Überfall introduces itself as a moral fable. A man is run down in the street by a car, his hand releasing a fateful coin he had been stopping to pick up that then rolls into the gutter. It will be later picked up by a pedestrian.
*. The single Reichsmark coin is apparently a counterfeit (the cigarette shop owner rejects it) but it works as a talisman: seeming to be a sign of good fortune (who doesn’t like to find money lying in the street?) but leading to calamity.

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*. The man who picks up the coin (played by Heinrich Gotho) is too odd to be realistic, and Metzner works hard to play his oddity up. He has an egg head (whose battering will be prefigured in the restaurant), buggy eyes, a comic walk, and a habit of pulling out a hanky to dab his face whenever he gets flustered. His adventures are also something out of comedy. He immediately uses the bad coin to make good money in a dice game, then has to lose a ruffian tailing him by diving into the arms of a prostitute, which turns out to be a case of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire when her pimp threatens to kill him. After being hit on the head and regaining consciousness in a hospital we last see him with his head swathed in bandages, which always make someone look funny. The victim is a Chaplin figure who doesn’t get to win in the end.
*. Is it wrong to view the film as a comedy? Was that what Metzner intended? I don’t see how it couldn’t have been, but at the same time this was a film that was banned by German censors for its “brutal and demoralizing effect.” Did they not get the joke? Or did they just not appreciate Metzner’s sense of humour? My guess is the latter.
*. It also strikes me as a self-conscious exercise in style, whatever the tenets of the New Objectivity might say. Even before we go through the final sequence of hallucinations, where the victim relives the various events of the day in distorted form, as though reflected in the fun-house mirror of the teapot he’d played with earlier, there are numerous other artistic points being scored.
*. Chief among these, I would say, is the isolation of hands — grasping, clutching, pointing, shaking dice, drawing faces on eggs, cleaning up an apartment. Hands are returned to throughout, beginning with the hand that rips the curtain from the main title and the dead hand releasing the coin into the street. If that isn’t a note of “style” then I don’t know what is.
*. Also noteworthy is the giving of objects and items symbolic weight. This is most obvious with the coin (the root of all evil that is not what it seems), but it’s also something done with the egg, the dying candle, the tarot card of death, and the teapot. These are all signs that are meant to be read. Getting them right might even save your life.

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