Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood is everything one could hope for in a documentary on a great film directors. First and foremost it shows us excerpts from films (Der Stolz der Firma, Schupalast Pinkus, Meyer aus Berlin) that one had a vague knowledge of but had never seen and makes one long to see them. Lubitsch’s Berlin films are prodigious in number – between 1913 and 1922 he acted in at least 30 films and directed over forty — amongst them extraordinary achievements in film art that deserve to be better know. Some can now be seen in the Lubitsch in Berlin boxed set currently distributed as part of the ‘Masters of Cinema’ series and which includes Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood as one of the discs. Fischer’s film on Lubitsch is succeeds in making us learn about Lubitsch’s early career as a whole as well as demonstrating the what, where, when and some of the how of some of his greatest films in this period. It leaves us eager to seek them out or to be once more charmed by their riches. If you have a Lubitsch addiction, Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin will stoke it.
The film’s objective is to restore Lubitsch’s German work to its rightful place in the Lubitsch oeuvre and to argue that that place is an important one. In order to do so, the film draws on the riches of film museums, the ones in Munich and Berlin are particularly well represented, not least through the expertise of their former directors, respectively Enno Patalas and Hans Helmut Prinzler. The use of a wide array of archival resources enable us to see Berlin at the beginning of the 20th Century, fabulous film posters, images taken on the sets of various production, what film studios were like at the time of the First World War, etc.; and we also get to hear the voices of legends like Henny Porten, Dietrich’s idol when a teenager and the great German star of the era, or Jörg Jannings reading the writings of his father Emil on Lubitsch. These words and voices — soft, romantic, hyper-emotional — evoke an era of filmmaking, an attitude to it, and even a whole tradition of German Romanticism that’s as rich as anything we get to see.
The film uses talking-head interviews to narrate Lubitsch’s story in Berlin but also to illustrate, contextualize and learn to appreciate that which we’ve seen. Thus, interspersed with clips from the films, archival footage and a whole array of images from a variety of sources, the film also deploys the knowledge and insights of some of the most celebrated writers on Lubitsch and his time in Berlin (Michael Hanisch, Jan-Christopher Horak); some of the most famous German filmmakers of the time in which the film was made (Tom Tykwer, director of Run Lola Run, Wolfgang Becker of Goodbye, Lenin, Dani Levy, Go for Zucker!); and members of Lubitsch’s own family: his daughter Nicola, his granddaughter Amand Goodpaster, and the smart and trenchant voice of his niece, Evy Bettleheim-Bentley.
Nicola Lubitsch was invited back to Berlin to help celebrate her father’s centenary in 1992 and her discovery of the Berlin culture of her father’s era and of his very great and unique contributions to it becomes the film’s central narrative and the viewers’ jouney. It’s as is if in telling us of her experience, in finding out new things about her father, his world and his art, she also helps us to discover and begins to set a context in which to appreciate this particular world and these particular works, guiding the viewer familiar only with the American Lubitsch into these silent treasures and the social, cultural and political contexts that helped create them. One couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to Lubitch’s pre-Hollywood life, career and work.