I saw 'Rutschbahn' in October 2007 at the silent-film festival in Pordenone, Italy; they screened a print of this German film from the Nederlands Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, which had Dutch intertitles. When a silent film's original titles are translated into another language, it sometimes happens that plot points are revised. This review is based on the Dutch-title print which I viewed.
'Rutschbahn' would translate as 'slippery road': the title works explicitly as a reference to a fun-fair ride, and more implicitly as a reference to the road of life.
Sixteen-year-old Heli (played by very pretty 17-year-old Fee Malten) is an orphan who has been adopted by an abusive foster father, who has likewise adopted (and abused) Nadja Berischeff (Grete Reinwald), a White Russian who has fled the Russian Revolution.
When her stepfather attempts to abuse her once too often, Heli shies an axe at him. Conveniently, the film establishes that this was axe-idental (not intentional), so that Heli isn't responsible for the consequences. Equally conveniently, the axe kills her stepfather. Even more conveniently, Nadja drops dead at about the same time. So, Heli swaps identities with the dead Russian girl and runs away to London, where criminals can roam the streets openly with no fear of ever being arrested. Some actual footage of London's West End is used briefly but effectively in this movie.
In London, Heli (pretending to be Nadja) has a chance encounter with handsome young Boris (Louis Lerch), who is -- wait for it -- Nadja's brother! Heli and Boris fall in love straight off, but the romance is somewhat compromised by the fact that Heli is using the identity of Boris's sister. Nonetheless, the two 'siblings' form a successful act as a trio of buskers -- street musicians -- along with jolly old Sam.
Sam is played by the one actor in this movie whom American viewers are most likely to recognise: Hungarian-Jewish character actor Szöke Szakall, who later went to Hollywood and -- billed as S.Z. Szakall and occasionally as S.Z. 'Cuddles' Szakall -- he appeared in 'Casablanca', 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' and other classic films. Szakall here looks very much as he did in his Hollywood period, and he appears in one busking sequence wearing a Scotsman's kilt!
The buskers are so good that they attract the attention of London music-hall clown Jig Hartford (played by the very un-English actor Heinrich George), who puts Boris and 'Najda' (Heli) into his own stage act. Jig soon finds himself attracted to the beautiful and nimble 'Najda', and he assumes that Boris can't possibly be a rival for her affections since Boris is (ostensibly) her brother.
Naturally, tragedy intervenes. Pretty soon the Jig is up. Heinrich George gives a tragic-clown performance that could easily have become bathetic, but he manages a skillful characterisation which I found mesmerising.
There are quite a few convenient coincidences in this movie, but most of them are got out of the way in the first two reels. I watched the busking scenes with deep interest, since I was a busker in London myself (in the very early 1960s) when I was about the same age that Heli is here; however, London had changed so much in the interim that my experiences weren't very similar to hers.
I found 'Rutschbahn' fairly unbelievable, but no more so than a lot of Hollywood show-biz movies. The screenplay is based on a novel which I haven't read -- 'Das Bekenntnis' by Clara Ratzka (who?) -- so I can't tell how much of the contrivance is down to this film's source material. 'Rutschbahn' is impeccably performed, beautifully photographed and eminently watchable all the way through. My rating: 8 out of 10.
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