After watching Lissy Arna in Gerhard Lamprecht’s 1928 film “Under the Lantern,” I looked forward to seeing her in a similar role in “Harbor Drift,” a 1929 film directed by Leo Mittler. Arna again plays a prostitute who sees an opportunity for wealth when a rich woman drops a string of pearls on the street. An old man beggar (Paul Rehkopf) picks up the pearls but the prostitute spends the rest of the film trying to get them. Mittler creates immediate tension by giving us a close-up of the pearls and the reactions of the prostitute and the beggar. It’s clear that both view the pearls as a solution to their impoverished lives, but the rich woman walks on unaware of the significance on other’s lives her pearls will cause.
The Prostitute, unnamed in the movie, spends most of her time in a nightclub frequented by a “fence” known as “The Receiver,” played by Sig Arno. The Receiver gives off a snake-like appearance, and when The Prostitute mentions the pearls, it whips up considerable interest. The Receiver is not the kind of criminal boss you can promise things to and not deliver; The Prostitute’s promises to produce the pearls fan the flames of desire in him and puts pressure on everyone involved.
Even though the pearls may help The Beggar escape poverty, he views them as a symbol of good luck and he’s not in a hurry to sell them. The Beggar lives in a shack by the docks with a jobless roommate the movie calls The Unemployed Man (Fritz Genschow). The old man views the pearls as a talisman that will continue to bestow good fortune upon him.
The Prostitute is also pressured by her landlady, who demands that The Prostitute pay the back rent. By chance, The Prostitute encounters The Beggar and The Unemployed Man at a nightclub. She plans to romance The Unemployed Man to convince him to reveal the hiding place of the pearls. Things get complicated when she actually falls for The Unemployed Man, but she may be in too deep to avoid tragic consequences.
As the penultimate film presented at the 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF), the screening emphasized the power of German cinema and provided a nice thematic comparison to Under the Lantern. However, in Under the Lantern, society and misplaced family values prove to be the undoing of Arno’s character. In Harbor Drift, which is my favorite film shown at the 2014 SFSFF festival, the decisions of Lissy Arna’s character bring about tragic and ironic consequences.