Henny Porten stars in her own production as a tenement maid who carries on a love affair with a simple workman (William Dieterle), unaware that she is loved from a distance by the shy neighborhood postman (Fritz Kortner) who delivers the mail on the backstairs of the building.
Despondent over her lovers’ absence from their nightly meetings, she lights up when she receives a letter from him professing his love and longing to hold her again. But, she soons discovers that the letter is a forgery by the postman. She eventually comes to realize that the postman has tried what he can to mitigate her pain, and shows signs of affection for him. All is well . . . until the return of the workman.
The film, previously inhabited mainly by the three actors, then comes filled with people as it eerily slithers toward its conclusion. The direction by Leopold Jessner and Paul Leni compactly yet compellingly tells its tale within the cramped sets designed by Leni that are bleak, coarsely textured and wonderfully expressionistic.
Die Hintertreppe (Backstairs) is noted as being one of the first feature-length silent era films to tell its story without intertitles, yet some English-language prints include a few explanatory intertitles. — Carl Bennett
2009 DVD edition
Ladies of the German Cinema (1921), color-tinted and color-toned black & white and black & white, 132 minutes total. not rated,
including Backstairs (1921), black & white, 50 minutes, not rated.
Grapevine Video, no catalog number, UPC 7-53182-25450-0.
One single-sided, single-layered, Region 0NTSC DVD disc, 1.33:1 aspect ratio image in full-frame 4:3 (720 x 480 pixels) interlaced scan MPEG-2 format, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, 12 chapter stops; standard DVD keepcase, $19.95.
Release date: September 2009.
Country of origin: USA
This DVD edition, replicated on a standard DVD disc (not DVD-R), has been mastered from a very-good 16mm reduction print that is persistently jittery. As is to be expected, the whitest highlights are blasted out (with a couple of featureless faces) and shadows are plugged-up, but the middle greytones are reasonably well reproduced. Some dust, speckling, and emulsion damage is present, and there is some moderate exposure fluctuations, but the overall viewing experience is good. The strength of the story overcomes the shortcomings of the source print.
The film is accompanied by an orchestral music score in clear stereo sound that is compiled from existing recordings. The quality of the score is sonically better than is usually found on budget video releases and conveys the film’s mood well.
This Grapevine Video edition is recommended until a better home video edition is released.