We’re an excitable bunch here at Silent London, which you have probably noticed by now. But a quiet announcement by Masters of Cinema recently caused even more whooping and merriment than usual. The classic movie imprint is releasing its gorgeous Lubitsch in Berlin box set, which had inexplicably fallen out of print. We’re big fans, big, big fans of this set, and so in a collective declaration of box set love, a group of us gathered together to review every movie in the box, one by one …
There are six films in the set, all made by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch in the earliest stages of his movie career, after he had been lured out of Max Reinhardt’s theatre company to the UFA studio. If these films are deemed less sophisticated than his later Hollywood work, then that is mostly because his subject matter is often more fanciful, his characters border on feral, and his sense of humour, at this time, in uninhibitedly mischievous. Or perhaps, because people are fools. The elusive “Lubitsch touch”, and his mastery of character, space and comedy is very much in evidence here – The Oyster Princess and Die Puppe in particular are perfectly pitched comic pantomimes. Three films in this box star the irrepressible German comic actress Ossi Oswalda – perpare to fall head over heels – a further two feature the wonderful Pola Negri and Emil Jannings makes an appearance too.
One of the films in this set, Anna Boleyn, was partially responsible for Lubitsch’s move west: it and Madame Du Barry (not in this set) found US distribution, and became unsettlingly successful on those shores. Lubitsch would bc the first established Hollywood talent to be snapped up by a Hollywood studio. Pola Negri would follow shortly after – they called it, sardonically, the “German Invasion”.
As well as the following six films, the set contains a feature-length documentary (Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood) and some very sharply written essays. Don’t miss out.
I Don’t Want to be a Man (1918)
Reviewed by Pamela Hutchinson
The exclamatory title of this 40-minute adventure is a lesson hard won for its heroine. One might add, she hardly wants to be a woman either – at least not her fretful elders’ idea of how a young lady in her teens, and the century’s, should be. Delightfully, other people’s ideas hardly get a look in. I Don’t Want to be a Man is a taboo-thumping caper that plots its own course through conventional ideas about gender and romance. It was early days for Weimar Berlin when this film was made, but even in this short comedy, there is lechery, bisexuality, drunkenness and decadence in abundance. And when it comes to rebellious on-screen teens, Ossi Oswalda’s flirtatious, gender-bending minx feels decidedly modern.
Ossi is a smirking teenage nightmare, a spoilt brat who smokes and plays poker with men much older than her. Banished to her room, the flirting continues through her window as her suitors contort themselves on the pavement below. When he is called away overseas, her uncle hires a new, supposedly strict, young guardian to take her firmly in hand. That the appointed dragon is a handsome young man may seem to spell trouble, but Ossi’s next move takes the story to a whole new level of larkiness.
Outraged at being grounded, Ossi decides the only possible way to enjoy a night on the tiles is in drag, so she has herself fitted for top-hat-and-tails and sneaks out of the house. I won’t give away what happens in the nightclub, and the morning after, but suffice to say that lust and confusion bloom in equal measure.
A running gag here is that as a woman, Ossi can handle herself and manipulate the men who throng her, expertly. As a man she is clueless and not a little afraid. At the tailor’s, in feminine dress, she parcels her body out to the adoring assistants who clamour to measure her up: a left arm for one, the waist for another. In the club, she is near toppled over by the women who want to dance with her. Whether Lubitsch is saying that when it comes to sex women have the upper hand, or just poking fun at the whole business of romantic chivalry matters little. That Ossi finds herself a partner who likes her both in drag, and out of it, is the happy ending that even the most “retrosexual” audience could crave.
(If you enjoy this film, I implore you to seek out Karin Swanstrøm’s Flickan i Frack too.)
Die Puppe (1919)
Reviewed by Alex Barrett
If it’s well-known that silent cinema is littered with heavily stylised classics, it’s perhaps also true that Die Puppe remains one of its most overlooked gems – a pre-Caligari classic of German artifice. Used here for comedic (rather than psychological) ends, the stylisation is no doubt employed in part to help make believable the film’s central premise: when a wealthy baron decides his nephew must marry, the local monks talk the nephew into marrying a lifelike doll so he can donate his dowry to their abbey. But what the nephew fails to realise is that the dollmaker’s puckish apprentice has broken the doll, and that his bride-to-be is in fact the dollmaker’s daughter herself, and not her mechanical counterpart …
If that all sounds rather silly … well, it is. But the nephew’s response to his uncle questioning the doll’s (literal) stiffness (“She’s from an old patrician family. They’re all very formal”) reminds us that this is as much social commentary as social comedy. The film is at its most pointed when representing the hypocrisy and greed of the monks, who gorge themselves on food and wine while claiming poverty (their response to the news of the 300,000 francs dowry: “Do you know how many pork knuckles you could eat for that!”).
The film was a vehicle for then-popular German actress Ossi Oswalda, who excels here in the dual role of the doll and the dollmaker’s daughter. But the film itself undoubtedly belongs to Lubitsch; he appears first onscreen, unpacking what is to become the scenery of the film’s opening scene. The film is subtitled “Four amusing acts from a toy chest”, and if the four acts never quite emerge in the print presented here, the rest of that description seems particularly accurate. Moving beyond stylisation-for-the-sake-of-it, Lubitsch seems to be delighting in the very medium of cinema and the possibilities inherent in the art form (lest the film’s exuberance make us forget, Die Puppe was made in 1919). Lubitsch is director as conjurer, and the film’s reflexive and playful edge exhibits all the purest joys of the silent era – a time in which cinematic conventions were yet to come along and ruin the experimental, stylised fun.
Alex Barrett is an independent filmmaker and critic. He is currently in development with his new film, London Symphony, a silent city symphony. You can follow the project’s progress on Facebook and Twitter.
Die Austernprinzessin (1919)
Reviewed by Ewan Munro
One of the wonderful things about silent cinema is that film techniques and technologies we nowadays take for granted were still evolving. This occasionally means we get stagy affairs with huge melodramatic emotions matched to over-the-top gestural acting and a sense of decorum a hundred years removed from our own sensibilities. Yet for every ten of those there’s a film like Die Austernprinzessin: constantly inventive, filled with laughs, and with a satirical sense that doesn’t feel hugely out of step with anything being made today. The director is Ernst Lubitsch, who at this point was still making his name. He even had a brand of sorts, the “Lubitsch touch”. Whatever that may be, he certainly does have a way with a film, no less in this early effort than in many of his “mature” works.
At the heart of The Oyster Princess is a pretty full-blooded critique of capitalism; there’s certainly no pulling punches here. The “oyster king”, Mr Quaker (Victor Janson), lives in a vast mansion attended by numerous servants and has a spoilt daughter, Ossi (Ossi Oswalda). Until the very end, all that either seems to care about is this privileged life they live. Quaker’s catchphrase, delivered at the end of each of the movie’s four acts, is “that doesn’t impress me”. Ossi, meanwhile, who kicks off the plot with her demand to marry a prince, susbequently pays only scant attention to either the man or the relationship. Hers is an entitled world of passing whims, and she soon decides that this prince she’s been given isn’t one she likes very much after all.
But this is a comedy of manners, and part of the joke is that Prince Nucki (Harry Liedtke) has fallen on hard times, and so has sent his valet Josef (Julius Falkenstein) to check out Mr Quaker’s offer. This somewhat inevitably leads to him being confused with the prince, and given the frivolous way the Quakers live, perhaps that’s little surprise. The opening shot shows Mr Quaker smoking an unreasonably large cigar, attended by a phalanx of obsequious black servants, while his every word is hung upon by an array of secretaries. This obscene overkill – Quaker doesn’t need so many women to transcribe his dictation, nor so many handservants, as most of them have nothing to do – quickly becomes a running joke. There are serried ranks of servants to help Ossi into and out of her bath, and serving a meal is like a military drill. This is obscenely gluttonous excess for its own sake – and for our amusement.
Although the technical limitations of the period mean the camera is still largely fixed, it’s hardly noticeable thanks to a lightness of touch in orchestrating the action. Characters move around incessantly. So vast is Quaker’s mansion that he, attended by his many servants, jogs from room to room. His daughter meanwhile is a whirligig of emotion, throwing everything around petulantly. At one point there’s even a dance sequence – “a foxtrot epidemic breaks out!” – allowing for various groupings around the mansion until eventually everyone, right down to the kitchen servants, is seen dancing.
It may not be surprising to devotees of Lubitsch’s work, but for one new to his cinema, what’s astonishing is that almost every moment in the film’s concise hour-long running time is filled with inventiveness and comic inspiration. Shots that just prosaically bridge a gap between two scenes are not for Lubitsch, and (as mentioned above) even moving between rooms is done with a humorous touch. The performances are also uniformly delightful, particularly Oswalda’s cheeky impishness and Janson’s amusingly affected stoicism.
Once again, this is another excellent Masters of Cinema release, with an exemplary transfer to DVD and a rather jaunty score perfectly matched to the action on screen. This isn’t just an excellent primer to Lubitsch’s cinema, or to silent screen comedy. It’s a marvel of a film and a joy to watch.
You can read more of Ewan Munro’s reviews at filmcentric.wordpress.com
Reviewed by Peter Baran
Of the silent genres which seem to have dissipated when sound came, the Sheikh & Sex desert romances can seem the most alien to us now. Not just for their broadly orientalist strokes, any silent film aficionado has to swallow to some degree the racial and jingoistic views of the time, but there is often a degree of exotic ethnography going on, from Valentino’s tea-towel headgear to the huge harems on display. In depicting a non-Christian world view, film companies could have their cake and eat it, tell highly sexualised stories without condoning them.
Sumurun, with all of its high melodrama, probably sits closer to Lubitsch’s sex comedies such as The Oyster Princess, but its source material and setting means that narratively at least there is a sense that the story is the most important thing. Whilst the film is invested in the capricious evil of its sheikh, and definitely leaning on the fetishisation of the harem and exotic dancing, Lubitsch does not seem to be moralising here. Instead he is using his setting as an alien world, building a blockbuster that throws all the spectacle it can muster on to the screen whilst trying to display humanity in all its characters.
This means that tonally, Sumurun is a bit of a mess. It lurches from slapstick to scenes of murder and ends with some high tragedy. This doesn’t really matter though, as the narrative thread is strong and like any blockbuster there is barely a moment where Lubitsch doesn’t put something funny, novel or just plain beautiful at the screen. Pola Negri is appropriately captivating as the travelling dancer who instigates the ruckus, but Jenny Hasselqvist’s Sumurun is suitably empathic in the title role as the seemingly doomed courtesan. The film, however, belongs to Lubitsch the actor, whose Hunchback both observes and drives the story but also holds the most significant emotional beats (and some of the broadest comedy). He does a lot of eyebrow acting, and is extremely watchable in the role. That said, by the time people are locked in trunks, and are being chased around the elaborate set like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, the hand of Lubitsch the director is clearly more prominent.
Much like its source material, Sumurun is invested in entertaining a wide audience in the broadest way. It has a Shakespearean sweep in its tragedy, but is at its heart a comedy – and quite a silly one in places. That it works is due to Lubitsch taking rather broad archetypes, particularly his own, and breathing life into them, transforming them from comedy to tragedy. It feels apt that the last shot of the film is Lubitsch himself, in his final acting role, mournfully strumming a lute; he will go on to entertain behind the camera, but he gives himself a pretty meaty final role.
Anna Boleyn (1920)
Reviewed by Kerry Lambeth
For the star of a story about a sexy tempter lady, Anne Boleyn (Henny Porten) doesn’t get to do a lot of tempting. The queens on either side of her have much more fun: her predecessor Catherine of Aragon (Hedwig Pauly-Winterstein) gets some spectacular eye rolls and glares in, and successor Jane Seymour (Aud Egede-Nissen) interestingly takes up the traditional “Anne Boleyn” role of the ambitious, flirtatious younger woman who lures away Henry VIII (Emil Jannings). Porten’s Anne is very Good and Virtuous and Tragic. Far from scheming to get Henry and the crown, she is pressured into the marriage by the king and her uncle Norfolk (Ludwig Hartau). The best shot of the film is of the two men exchanging glances over her head, then talking rapidly at her from both sides as she slips into a half-swoon between them.
The three leads are introduced with very successful contrasts: Anne’s energy as she runs across a courtyard to greet her fiancé Henry Norris (Paul Hartmann); Henry’s joie de vivre as he licks his fingers and drinks from a tankard bigger than his head; and Catherine’s ritual, stultified staging of monarchy in the court.
Lubitsch frames Anne in playful boxes throughout the film. The opening scene sees her in a rocking cabin on the sea from France, she kisses Norris over a half-door and meets Henry VIII when the train of her dress is caught in a door. The set traps her but the camera dangles the possibility of escape. After she is sentenced to death, she begins to stride toward the camera, nearly faces us head-on, but chickens out and ducks away down a side corridor.
As a little bonus, the new score has a few jokes for early modern music fans, as “Pastimes with good company” – a tune Henry VIII wrote himself – is heard at key moments: at the king’s introduction, sitting at a Round Table (do you see) with his knights, at a May fair and later in a minor key as things start to go wrong for Anne.
I suspect it’s a bit long and worthy for those who know Lubitsch for his comedies, but as a historical costume drama Anna Boleyn is a lot quicker and wittier than most contemporaneous films of that genre, and frankly most modern ones too.
Kerry Lambeth blogs about Shakespeare, history, travel and drinking at Planes, Trains and Plantagenets
Die Bergkatze (1921)
Reviewed by Philip Concannon
Ernst Lubitsch has referred to Die Bergkatze as his own personal favourite, and it’s easy to see why. This picture – which proudly proclaims itself as “A grotesque in four acts” – marks the peak of his silent era creativity. The film’s production design recalls The Cabinet of Dr Caligari with its spiral staircases and unusual angles, but filtered through the fantastic storybook style of Lubitsch’s Die Puppe, which he pushes to extremes here. We see the story unfold through a series of bizarre irises, from conventional circles to oblongs and squiggly outlines. Sometimes scenes are framed by an iris that suggests we’re viewing the action through a hole torn hastily in a sheet. It’s a suitably wild approach for the raucous tale Lubitsch wants to tell.
Die Bergkatze is the story of a soldier (Paul Heidemann) who finds himself caught between two women, one a captain’s eligible daughter (Edith Meller) and the other a gypsy girl – the “wildcat” of the title – who lives in the mountains with a gang of bandits. Her name is Rischka and she is played by Pola Negri, whose performance here almost matches the unrestrained exuberance of Ossi Oswalda in her collaborations with Lubitsch. Negri is lively and tough, manhandling and whipping the men around her into submission and stealing the leading man’s trousers within minutes of meeting him. While she takes steps towards a more feminine demeanour throughout the film, memorably trying on dresses and dousing herself in perfume, her more abrasive edges are never smoothed away – I loved the way she slapped away a proffered champagne glass before swigging straight from the bottle.
Lubitsch keeps undercutting convention in this manner. When we first see a crowd form to see off Heidemann’s Lieutenant Alexis, we might assume that it consists of people awed by his heroism in battle, but then we see that the throng is populated entirely by tearful women who want to thank “Alexis the Seducer” for the good times. Die Bergkatze is a gleefully entertaining romantic farce, with all of the wit and sauciness that characterises Lubitsch’s most distinctive comedies, but he also finds room for some unexpectedly touching interludes. A dream sequence that sees Rischka’s ghostly presence cavorting with Alexis is one of the loveliest scenes the director ever filmed.
Philip Concannon reviews films at Philonfilm.net