SYNOPSIS:Before he set the Hollywood standard for sophisticated comedy, Ernst Lubitsch was equally innovative for German cinema in the late 1910s and early 1920s. With a remarkable series of films, ranging from outrageous and anarchic comedies to groundbreaking historical dramas, Lubitsch established himself as one of Germany's most vital filmmakers and the first German director to achieve consistent box office success in America.
The Doll (1919, 64 min)
Produced in Berlin in 1919, Ernst Lubitsch's The Doll (Die Puppe) is a charming romantic fantasy that shows the director already in full command of the now-legendary "Lubitsch touch." Presaging such playful comedies as Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living, The Doll follows the misadventures of an young man who must get married in order to inherit a fortune. He opts to purchase a remarkably life-like doll and marry it instead, not realizing that the doll is actually the puppet-maker's flesh-and-blood daughter, in disguise.
In The Oyster Princess (1919, 60 min)
A pampered American oyster tycoon decides to find a prince to marry his daughter, but things don’t go quite as planned. Along the way, there are mishaps, misunderstandings and a foxtrot sequence that must be seen to be believed.
I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918, 45 min)
A teenaged tomboy, tired of being bossed around by her strict guardian, impersonates a man so she can have more fun, but discovers that being the opposite sex isn’t as easy as she had hoped. What ensues is a gender-bending comedy that was decades ahead of its time.
This exotic spectacle stars Jenny Hasselqvist (The Saga of Gösta Berling) as Sumurun, a rebellious member of a harem who has committed the greatest of sins: she has rejected the old sheikh and instead fallen in love with a charming cloth merchant. Lubitsch expertly interweaves Sumurun’s tale with several other related stories, and the result is a wonderful blend of melodrama and comedy. The cast also includes screen legend Pola Negri (Forbidden Paradise) as a traveling dancer who is drawn to both the harem and to the sheikh’s handsome son, famed director-actor Paul Wegener (The Golem) as the tyrannical, lecherous old sheikh, and Lubitsch himself as a hunchbacked clown in love with Negri.
Sumurun was based on a pantomime act that had been a popular success for Lubitsch’s mentor, the theater director Max Reinhardt. The New York Times labeled the film “an exceptional production,” and Lewis Jacobs, in his book The Rise of the American Film, wrote that Sumurun “not only revealed Lubitsch as an ingenious director of comedy, but introduced a risqué wit that killed the heavy-handed American sex and style displays. This film presaged the flock of films Lubitsch was to make in America and was to have a lasting influence on American productions generally.”
Anna Boleyn (1921)
The tragic story of the second wife of England’s Henry VIII is given a first-class treatment by Lubitsch, complete with opulent sets and some beautifully-shot exterior sequences. Henny Porten (Kohlhiesel’s Daughter, Backstairs) gives a memorable performance as Boleyn, but the film really belongs to Emil Jannings (The Last Laugh, The Blue Angel), one of Germany’s greatest screen stars, playing Henry. Jannings’s bravura performance conveys Henry’s decadence through his insatiable appetite for both food and women, but never reduces him to caricature or pure villain. Jannings also establishes the screen model for Henry that would be further developed by Charles Laughton almost fifteen years later in The Private Life of Henry VIII.
Anna Boleyn was the second of Lubitsch’s German films to be released in the U.S., following Madame Dubarry. It was a notable success with both the critics and the public, and helped to elevate Lubitsch’s international reputation. After making three more films in Germany, Lubitsch accepted an invitation from Mary Pickford to come to Hollywood to direct her film Rosita – and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Wildcat (1921)
At a remote fort, the commander awaits the arrival of a new lieutenant, who is captured en route by a band of outlaws that roam the nearby, snow-covered mountains. But the daughter of the bandits’ leader quickly falls for the young officer, thus setting in motion an outrageous farce that is Lubitsch at his most unrestrained. Peter Bogdanovich has described The Wildcat as "an uproarious, hard-edged antimilitary spoof," and ranks the film among the five funniest movies he’s ever seen (along with another early Lubitsch comedy, 1919’s The Doll).
The Wildcat (aka Die Bergkatze) not only looks ahead to Lubitsch's later comedies, but can also be seen as an ancestor to Monty Python and the early, anarchic films of Woody Allen. The film’s refreshingly unhinged approach is also reflected in its visual style, including a fortress that looks like a giant toybox and even the film's frame, which continuously changes size and shape. In Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, Scott Eyman states, "In style, it is like nothing else committed to film," and ultimately dubs it "an exercise in riotous artifice, as much pure fun as anything in Lubitsch's canon."
Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin (2006, 109 min)
Featuring interviews with daughter Nicola Lubitsch, film historians Enno Patalas and Jan-Christopher Horak and filmmaker Tom Tykwer (among others), Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin documents the life of the legendary filmmaker from his birth in 1892 to his departure for Hollywood in 1923. The feature-length documentary is sprinkled with excerpts from Lubitsch's rarely-seen early work (both as actor and director) and offers fascinating insights into the German film industry in the silent era.