Ernst Lubitsch

Ernst Lubitsch

Lubitsch in Berlin: Fairy Tales, Melodramas & Sex Comedies (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by David Sterritt

A six-DVD boxset, including I Don’t Want to Be a Man (B&W, 45 min., 1918), The Doll (B&W, 64 min., 1919), The Oyster Princess (B&W, 60 min., 1919), Sumurun (B&W, 103 min., 1920), Anna Boleyn (B&W, 118 min., 1920), The Wildcat (B&W, 81 min., 1921), Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood (directed by Robert Fischer, color, 109 min. 2006). A Eureka Entertainment release.

Ernst Lubitsch directed forty German films before making his Hollywood debut in 1923. These remain obscure for most American cinephiles, and before I became familiar with a significant number of them I assumed that apart from such masterpieces as The Marriage Circle (1924) and Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925), whatever merits they had were simply overshadowed by the brilliance of his sound pictures. I’ve now deepened my friendship with Lubitsch’s silent phase by spending many hours with Lubitsch in Berlin: Fairy-Tales, Melodramas, and Sex Comedies, a six-DVD set from Eureka Entertainment, and while the evidence confirms my opinion that he was a fast learner, an able technician, and a nimble scenarist, it gives me no reason to rethink my tempered opinion of his early work as a whole. Some of his silent comedies are superb in every respect, but his more ambitious pictures often show too much eagerness to please and a partiality toward projects he wasn’t yet prepared to handle. The films in Eureka’s box set represent both ends of the spectrum, which reduces its entertainment quotient but enhances its value as a representative sampling and a historical resource.

Born in Berlin in 1892, Lubitsch quit school at sixteen to break into show business. In 1911 he scored an entry-level position in the Deutsches Theater run by legendary director Max Reinhardt, moved quickly up the ladder, and studied movie acting on the side, making his first screen appearance in 1912. He soon began writing and directing as well, and graduated from comedy shorts to more ambitious films just as World War I was ending in 1918. As an actor he’s been likened to Charles Chaplin, who also gravitated toward outsider characters: Chaplin was a European infiltrating Hollywood as a nonconformist tramp, while Lubitsch’s comic persona was a Jew not quite at home with dominant manners and mores. Although he made eight movies with Pola Negri and nine with Emil Jannings, his major muses during these years were Ossi Oswalda, a prodigiously gifted comic, and Henny Porten, an unimpressive actress but a major star. In 1922 he visited America to promote a movie, realized Hollywood was the place for him, and stayed there until his death in 1947.

The best films in Eureka’s collection are the earliest ones, beginning with the forty-five-minute farce I Don’t Want to Be a Man (Ich möchte kein Mann sein), one of eight pictures Lubitsch released in 1918 and one of sixteen he made with Oswalda between 1916 and 1920. After starting out as a dancer, she had turned to acting on advice from her mentor, Hanns Kräly, a writer who worked with Lubitsch on some thirty films. Frequently compared with Mary Pickford, she has a terrific silent-movie face, with expressive eyes and an ability to play her features for all-out comic effect without losing the psychological reality of her characters, who were usually named Ossi too.

Critics often exaggerate the naughty bits of old movies, but the plot of I Don’t Want to Be a Man is truly a hoot. Ossi is a spunky young woman whose supercilious new guardian, Dr. Kersten, puts the kibosh on her freewheeling style. If only she were a man, she daydreams, she’d be free to do what she pleased. So she dresses up as a guy and goes to a nightclub, where she runs into Dr. Kersten, who doesn’t recognize her or realize she’s a woman. Before long the two start kissing, and they keep up the canoodling until they pass out from the booze they’ve drunk. The next day Dr. Kersten asks his faux-gentleman friend to keep their “little adventure” a secret, but in a final twist he finds out his boyfriend is a girl, and they get back to kissing. The outcome is fine with Ossi, who has decided that being a man is way less fun than it’s cracked up to be.

Ossi Oswalda cross-dressing in I Don't Want to Be a Man

Ossi Oswalda cross-dressing in I Don't Want to Be a Man

Stories about cross dressing have been commonplace for centuries, and this one is distinguished by the steady rush of comic invention and social satire that Lubitsch weaves around the generic framework. One example out of many is the scene in the clothing store where Ossi buys her male attire; she’s still her normal female self, and clerks fall over one another in their eagerness to take her measurements, eventually splitting up the job so each can handle a different body part. The nightclub scene is even more virtuosic, building brisk momentum in a crowded milieu jammed with mischievous visual details. Still little more than a neophyte in 1918, Lubitsch was incontestably a director with a future. Happily aware of that, he took increasing pleasure in the creative freedom he now enjoyed.

The next film in Eureka’s collection, The Doll (Die Puppe, 1919), commences with a prologue in which Lubitsch himself erects a miniature movie set on a tabletop, dissolving to a life-size version when the narrative begins. No arbitrary gimmick, this is an ingenious way of introducing a fantasy derived from an E.T.A. Hoffmann tale about a doll maker who constructs an artificial bride for a young man who needs to fake a marriage so his father will stop nagging him to settle down. When a klutzy apprentice breaks the automaton, the doll maker’s daughter (Oswalda) takes its place, and hilarity ensues. Although the picture is as proudly artificial as its prologue, its visual intelligence and rich humor give it a streak of humanity that recalls the treatment of a similar theme by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). Oswalda is spectacular, the supporting cast (Hermann Thimig, Victor Janson, Max Kronert, Gerhard Rotterband) is a comedy director’s dream, and the cinematography by Theodor Sparkuhl (who shot all of this collection’s films) and Kurt Waschneck (cophotographer on three of them) is both antic and meticulous.

Oswalda returns as Ossi in The Oyster Princess (Die Austernprinzessin, aka My Lady Margarine), another 1919 comedy. Here she plays the spoiled daughter of America’s seafood king, and when we meet her she’s furious because another girl, whose dad is a mere shoe-polish king, has one-upped her by marrying a prince. Called in to solve this problem, a matchmaker calls on impoverished Prince Nucki, who sends his servant Josef to check Ossi out. In a plot twist so quick it’s hard to spot, much less figure out, Ossi finds herself wedded to Josef rather than Nucki, blissfully unaware that she has married down instead of up. Subsequent events include a “foxtrot epidemic,” a women’s boxing match, a meeting of the Multi-Millionaires Daughters Association Against Dipsomania, and a great deal more.

The film is clearly a parable of the tetchy relationship between the weightiness of European tradition and the clout of American capital, but Lubitsch’s lighter-than-air treatment keeps deeper meanings down in the subtext where they belong. Once again Oswalda gives an inspired performance, expertly supported by Janson as the oyster king, Kronert as the matchmaker, Harry Liedtke as the prince, and Julius Falkenstein as his factotum, who copes with a tedious wait at Ossi’s home by absent-mindedly capering around a carpet, as sublime a comic moment as I’ve seen in any Lubitsch film. In addition, the depiction of a riotously grandiose wedding gives ample proof that Lubitsch was Fritz Lang’s equal in manipulating crowds.

If the DVD set stopped here, it would be three hours of unadulterated enjoyment. The next three discs mark a conspicuous turn, however, tracing Lubitsch’s shift to a grander, more sober-sided cinema. Sumurun (1920), called “a strange Arabian Nights bedroom farce” in Eureka’s program essay, is less eerie, exotic, and amusing than that description suggests. It has two heroines: the title character, a sheikh’s concubine who falls in love with a dashing cloth merchant, and an itinerant dancer desired by the sheikh, his son, and a hunchbacked minstrel. While the production is lavish, the unwieldy narrative unwinds at a plodding pace, the intersecting storylines are muddled, and neither the montage nor the mise-en-scène shows much difference from what D.W. Griffith had done in Hearts of the World (1918) and other such spectacles. The most interesting element, Lubitsch’s lugubrious portrayal of the hunchback, is also its weakest link, overwrought and inflated throughout. It’s no wonder Lubitsch isn’t much remembered as an actor; the only good news about his work in Sumurun is that it was his last-ever appearance on the screen.

His next film, the biopic Anna Boleyn, also hails from 1920 and suffers from pumped-up production values (costing 8.5 million Deutschmarks, it was the most expensive German movie to that time.) Porten plays the ill-starred spouse of Henry VIII, who’s portrayed by Jannings with equally little spark. The production design is surprisingly bland, considering the opportunities held forth by the subject and period, and again the editing is slack. At least Sparkuhl’s camerawork is consistently strong, making good use of shadow, aperture framing, and doorways.

After the relative dullness of Anna Boleyn, the collection’s last Lubitsch offering is a change of pace, to put it mildly. In place of the biopic’s fact-based narrative, The Wildcat (Die Bergkatze, aka The Mountain Lion, 1921) spins a zany yarn about soldiers and bandits fighting, wooing, and conniving high in the Bavarian Alps; and in lieu of the earlier film’s historical solemnity it injects the action with astounding amounts of visual experimentation, from a dream sequence that Luis Buñuel could envy—snowmen dancing and prancing in a surreal anticipation of Lubitsch’s later musicals—to mercurial changes in the size and shape of the framing. The style hovers between German expressionism and Soviet constructivism, with plenty of slapstick for good measure, executed by Negri, Janson, and other Lubitsch regulars.

As exciting as this sounds, it left moviegoers completely cold in 1921, becoming a box-office disaster in Germany and receiving no distribution anywhere else. This surprised Lubitsch, who thought it had an “inventiveness and satirical pictorial wit” surpassing many of his other films; eventually he decided that its military satire had been too edgy for the post-World War I era, when the Weimar Republic was facing disarmament, reparations, and political infighting. That’s a good theory, but The Wildcatleaves me cold as well—it’s more frantic and frenetic than clever and engaging, excellent for study yet hard to love. I’m pleased that Eureka has included it, for both its theoretical interest and its film-historical importance as Lubitsch’s last German comedy. But the inventiveness and wit of which he spoke are displayed much more effectively in the Ossi comedies that preceded it.

The documentary Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin provides a semisuccessful coda to the Eureka collection, which is otherwise a no-frills release supplemented only by brief program essays. After half an hour of humdrum background, the film presents a generous array of clips and an eclectic group of commentators ranging from the director’s daughter and granddaughter to film scholar Jan-Christopher Horak and filmmaker Tom Tykwer, whose speculation that Lubitsch’s move to America saved him from “getting mired in the expressionistic, Murnau trend” casts intriguing light on the late Lubitsch silents. The soundtrack adds archival comments from Jannings and Porten, who mostly tell insufferable anecdotes about how brilliant they find themselves.

As for the fabled Lubitsch Touch, which is explored near the end of the documentary, I’m relieved to discover that the director’s fondest admirers find it as slippery a notion as I always have. Tykwer says it’s the sense of hope and optimism expressed by the films. Others say it’s the glow of Lubitsch’s respect for the intelligence of his audience; still others say nothing at all. And that’s fine. Lubitsch’s great movies don’t need slogans to support them, and the best offerings here are as great, if not as imposing, as anything he ever did.

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David Sterritt, chair of the National Society of Film Critics, is adjunct professor of film at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.