I first heard Robert Land’s name earlier this year. The context was: “Robert Land … ever heard of him?” I hadn’t, of course. But suddenly Land was in sight everywhere: films of his played at Bologna and there was a very informative piece on this Austrian-Czech director in Sight & Sound. At Ritrovato, I saw the rather plodding comedy I Kiss your Hand, Madame (1927), starring Marlene Dietrich, but I missed the screening of the rather better regarded Little Veronika (1929) and worried that I had made an error.
Hurrah for the Archives strand at London Film Festival, which brought the new restoration of Little Veronika to my doorstep today, on 35mm with live accompaniment of the highest quality from John Sweeney. Made around the same time, and for the same production company, as Pandora’s Box, and more to the point, Diary of a Lost Girl, Little Veronika is a short, sharp tale of rustic innocence in peril.
Little Veronika (played by Käthe von Nagy, an experienced, if young, actress) lives with her family in the Tyorl, caring for furred creatures, being polite to the neighbours and doing her chores like the good girl she promises to be. She goes to Vienna to visit her glamorous Aunt Rosie (Maly Delshaft, the wife in Varieté), who has grown impressively wealthy and well-dressed in her decade in the capital. Aunt Rosie has slinky lingerie and lives in a big house with several other women. You’d have to be as innocent as Veronika not to know what’s going on, how Aunt Rosie earns her money, or what plans her new friends have for her future.
However, the best-laid plans encounter a bump in the road, in the form of a handsome cad with dishonest intentions, and young lad from Veronika’s home village (Otto Hartmann) with a love pure enough to wash away the moral grime of the Viennese nightlife. Veronika falls, and falls pretty low, but the story ends with a surprise, and a note of hope. It’s possible that our heroine might be liberated rather than than destroyed by her adventures, which gives this tale a dash of modernity.
I was thoroughly charmed by this film. Von Nagy is gorgeous, of course, but more alive than most ingénues. She is wide-eyed in wonder at Vienna, of course, and at times pathetically attached to the man who takes advantage of her. But a very knowing and sexy sashay as the cad comes (she thinks) to take her home, shows how much she is growing up. If she can weather the coming crisis, she could forge herself an independent and fulfilled life, you think. Delshaft is far more sympathetic than she could have been – a disheveled Dietrich-alike, not quite resigned to the low-life she leads.
It’s a late silent and it shows. The intertitles are almost unnecessary, as edits and dissolves take us from Veronika’s innocent idyll and into the fleshpots of the capital. I liked the double exposure for Veronika’s jolly train ride, and the slightly distorted shot as she walks distraught through the woods towards the end. And the scene in which Veronika tastes alcohol for the first time combines the best of Von Nagy’s earthy performance and a kaleidoscopic trick effect to intoxicate the audience.
That article in Sight & Sound was a little sniffy about this film I felt, calling it “everybody’s darling” and suggesting that critics were attracted to its bleakness, “more gloom than gloss”. It’s not a film for those who want to wallow in seediness though, managing to be fairly candid but still discreet. Here, while sexual misconduct is frowned upon, even by those who should know better, it’s not a life sentence.
The next time someone asks me about Robert Land, I’ll have a better answer, and I will tell them to watch this sleek and appealing film.