The Shanghai Drama - Scianghai (G. W. Pabst, 1938) 🇺🇸

The Shanghai Drama |

October 01, 2021

“Scianghai” in Italian in the 1930s: a title that lashes and stings like a dragon's tail. The victim is on the ground, an angel fallen from a sky licked by the flames of hell. The city is burning and the dragon savours his victory. He surveys his captive, her eyes fixed on the reptilian gaze of a gaunt man with a hideously scarred forehead. The Shanghai Drama in question unfolds on the foreground of the poster between two figures symbolically bound together forever by the pitiless scaly beast encircling them.

The Shanghai “lady” (not to be confused with Orson Welles’ Lady from Shanghai!) is magnificently portrayed by Austrian actress Christl Mardayn, whose wonderful French means she is not dubbed, even when singing in her role as the “star” of Shanghai. Kay Murphy works at one of the cabaret clubs, the Olympic, where the “goddesses” are simply poor exiled White Russian girls, exploited by a former convict, Big Bill, whose brazen smacking of backsides would be unthinkable today. Worse still, the attics of this sleazy joint are home to the most sordid of plots as well as summary executions. 

It is also the notorious meeting place for members of the “Black Dragon”, who seek to eliminate Cheng, a popular and increasingly powerful activist. In a scene using genuine local extras rather than pseudo-Chinese in make-up (one of the first films to do so), Cheng inflames the crowd with his fiery speeches attacking Western imperialists as much as Chinese warlords, including the Black Dragon. The Black Dragon members quickly make their feelings clear, symbolically cutting the head from a freshly bloomed rose, determined to behave like beasts and cause harm. For as they declare: “If peace is humankind’s victory over war, war is the beast’s victory over humankind. For humankind is a beast...”.

Cheng’s murder is meticulously organised, and the lethal poison is tested on an innocent coolie. The instruments of torture, carefully arranged in a surgeon’s satchel, are razor sharp. Their “judge” pronounces the death sentence as he sensuously caresses his Qi Gong ball. Their forked tongues excel in the hypocritically refined language of Jeanson’s script, which foreshadow the sophistication of the ordeals to come. The deliciously wry formulations deployed when the two parties meet are particularly memorable: 

  • “The Black Dragon, with great presumptuousness, makes so bold as to request the invaluable collaboration of our highly respectable friend, the Mighty Cheng”. To which the latter responds, retaining his cool head despite the punishment that awaits: 
  • “My worthless self is infinitely touched by the honour paid to me by the Black Dragon”. 

The finely crafted dialogue is raised to new heights of dramatic intensity by Pabst’s highly expressive filmmaking, inherited from the silent movie era. In The Shanghai Dramathe man who helped forge the careers of Louise Brooks and Greta Garbo glorifies the two protagonists by building on their performances: Mardayn, with her sad eyes and faraway gaze, still in love with Louis Jouvet (playing Ivan), whose scarred faced is stamped with merciless cruelty. A member of the Black Dragon, Kay believed he had died, but he resurfaces in her life more alive than ever. The pair, both White Russians, had already committed many terrible acts together before seeking exile incognito among the lowlifes, adventurers, millionaires and prostitutes of Shanghai. But Kay, even though she has decided to give it all up, has to carry out one final mission: lure Cheng into the Dragon’s mouth. Is the price high enough to earn her freedom?

As in all tragedies, the only way out through this nest of vipers is death. Kay’s death is wonderfully portrayed at the end of the film as we imagine her to be still alive, swept along by the crowd of liberated people. She is free at last: we see her for the first time in an outdoor scene in the oppressive heat of Shanghai port, no longer shackled by the frills and furbelows of formal dress. The femme fatale is the heroine of this tragedy, recalling the lament of the exiled Andromache: “captive, always sad, unwelcome to myself”. We can also see similarities between these two characters whose only reason for living is the pure, maternal love they feel for their child. All that remains to Kay is her 16-year-old daughter, educated in Hong Kong, whose new American passport gets two bullet holes when her mother kills her father (Ivan)! The Black Dragon is just like the Hydra and always manages to grow a new head, which ends up stabbing the beautiful captive.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a downbeat film. Lightness is the overwhelming sensation, and it is packed with jazz and dance numbers that left me profoundly nostalgic for this “Pearl of the Orient”, every bit as delightful as Paris in the Roaring Twenties. Another pearl awaits you here: this magnificent poster by Anselmo Ballester that will lend your surroundings the charm, chic and elegance of the film’s smouldering beauties.

Check out the French version of this article.