Jewish Culture as Context for Lubitsch

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In 1992 Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and  Gunter Romesch (owner of the Notausgang cinema, famous for showing To Be or Not to Be continuously for many years)  wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lubitsch’s birth and decided on a comprehensive retrospective of his films. At the time American Lubitsch was already much appreciated but German Lubitsch remained largely unknown even in Berlin. The retrospective would be an opportunity to gather, get to know and disseminate the German work. They needed, however, something that would propel media interest and help publicise the event. Their first thought was to have the street where Lubitsch was born, originally Lothringer Strasse but renamed Wilhelm Pieck Strasse by the GDR, rechristened once again as Ernst Lubitsch Strasse. But the city of Berlin turned them down in favour of Torstrasse (Gate Street). Tykwer still seems astounded by this refusal.

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François Truffaut famously entitled his appreciation of Lubitsch, ‘Lubitsch was a Prince’[i] but we know of more modest beginnings albeit not, as Nicola Lubitsch insistently reminds us, as modest as legend would have it. In Fischer’s Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood we’re told that Lubitsch’s father immigrated to Berlin in the 1870s from Vilnius, in what is now Lithuania but was then Russia, in order to escape the pogroms.

In a short biography of Lubitsch published by Cahier du cinéma in 1985, Hand Helmut Prinzler tells us instead that Lubitsch’s father Ssimcha (Simon) was born in 1852 in Grodno, Russia whilst his mother Anna Lindenstaedt was born in 1850 in Wriezen an der Oder, Germany[ii]. Scott Eyman in Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, concurs with Prinzler and adds that ‘Grodno was largely settled by Jews expelled from Lithuania between 1000 and 15000. It was, in turn, the site of several major pogroms in the seventeenth century. By the early nineteenth century, Grodno was part of the Jewish Pale of Settlement, the mandated residence of five million jews’.[iii]

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In Jonathan Sperber’s magisterial biography of Marx, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life, Sperber recounts how ‘For Europeans of the eighteen century, Jews formed a nation whose members were spread all across Europe. This Jewish ‘nation’ should not be confused with its modern namesake, in a world of nation-states, since pre-1789 European states were the patrimony of their rulers, not the product of nations. Rather, it was one of may groups within the society of orders, whose place was guaranteed by its own charters, although these tended to contain more obligations and restrictions than right and privileges.’[iv] According to Sparber, Napoleon’s invasion of nations to the East of France and the imposition of the Napolenic Code on them had the effect of simultaneously freeing Jews from the concept of the Society of Orders and allowing them to become citizens. But according to Sperber, ‘The Jews’ identification with the new regime, which for all of its problematic features promised an improvement in their conditions, meant that opposition to the Napoleonic rule would be focused on the Jews’. [v] Thus in the broader context of European history, Lubitsch can be situated between a moment of emancipation and a moment of anninhilation that luckily for him and for us would come once he was safely ensconsced in the United States.

Lubitsch's siblings
Lubitsch’s siblings

 

This first section of Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood shows us how Lubitsch grew up as the fourth child, second son and youngest child of a well-to-do family of taylors. His siblings were Richard (born in 1882), Marga (1884) and Elsa (1885). There was thus a ten year difference between Ernst and his elder brother. They grew up in the Jewish ghetto around what was then Bülow Platz and is now Rosa Luxembourg Platz. For more than twenty years Lubitsch lived in this neighbourhood, he was formed by it and the culture of the milieu and its ‘structure of feeling’, is everywhere evident in his early films. This is the world of Pinkus and of Meyer. A world of apprentices trying to get a job and get the girl in the face of all kinds of barriers, a world where one has to learn about appearances that don’t come naturally, about manners not one’s own.

Lubitsch with his father Ssimcha (Simon)
Lubitsch with his father Ssimcha (Simon)

 

In 1900 Lubitch’s father has a tailoring business specializing in ladies’ coats with eight employees plus jobber. According to Prinzler in his Cahiers biography, he’s also got a business associate, Max Friedländer. They’ve got a phone, a considerable marker of status in the Berlin of the time. Berlin itself, according to the 1900 census, had 1.88 million inhabitants, 2.48 million if you include the 20 surrounding independent communities of Charlottengurg, Wilmesdorf, Schöneberg and others that would now be considered part of Berlin. By the1910 census Berlin has 3.4 million inhabitants with the ‘independent communities’ now incorporated into Berlin proper. There are now 30 permanent theatres and many seasonal ones. In Nollendorfplatz, a concert hall is transformed into a cinema, the biggest in Germany: the Mozartsaal-Lichtspiele seating 1200 spectators. The theatre belongs to one of the greatest film trusts, ‘Allgemeine Kinematographen Gesellschaft m.b. H, founded in 1906 by Paul Davidson, a figure that would become central to the history of German cinema in general and to Lubitsch’s career in particular.[vi]

 

Lubitsch's mother Anna who ran the business and the family
Lubitsch’s mother Anna who ran the business and the family

 

From 1899 to 1902 Lubitsch went to prep school, after which he was admitted to a very reputable high school; The Sophien-Gymnasium, Weinmeistertrasse, not far from Alexanderplatz. An old syllabus tells us that he was taught German, Latin, French (from the seventh year) Greek (from the eight year) history, geography, math, arithmetic[vii]. There’s a wonderful scene in Schuhpalast Pinkus, where Lubitsch playing Sally Pinkus is sweeping the floor and the intertitle tells us, ‘I learned Latin for this?’, a refrain that’s probably been echoed in different variants through the ages and up to now.

Walking in the 'kiez'.
Walking in the ‘kiez’.

 

In 1900 there were only 92,000 Jews in a total Berlin. According to Scott Eyman, ‘Like many of their Jewish brethren in Berlin, the Lubitsch family was assimilated and not at all religious. The synagogue was a place for an obligatory visit on the high Holidays and little more….Overall the family’s specific identity was as Berliners not as Jews.’[viii] According to Gottfried Reinhardt, Max’s son and later famous Hollywood producer (The Red Badge of Courage) and director (Town Without Pity), ‘‘Berlin ignored the anti-Semitism towards its indigenous ethnic groups. The Viennese knew their ‘Jews’; for the Berliners, the Jew was a Berliner, though as strange as any other’.[ix]

 

A culture that shaped Lubitsch, was central to Berlin in the Weimar era, and was destroyed by the Nazis.
A culture that shaped Lubitsch, was central to Berlin in the Weimar era, and was destroyed by the Nazis.

Lubitsch was born in Germany and he was a Berliner but he was also a Jew. This whole culture that we’re shown, the diasporic milieu of Lubitsch’s childhood, the culture of the kiez, the small community within the larger town that was the Jewish neighbourhood in Berlin; and of Schönhauser Allee; both so integral to Berlin culture and indeed to German culture as a whole, was completely destroyed by the Nazis. Thus it is right that the film and Tykwer attempt to reclaim at least part of Lubitsch. He was a Berliner and as the film will argue, central to the German cinema of that age. But one can also understand why the city of Berlin might want to refuse to name a street after a Berliner who also happened to be one of the great artists of the 20th century: Berlin would be reminding itself that it had just sat by or worse whilst an integral chunk of itself had been destroyed. But then again, perhaps it should. Well, no perhaps about it. It should. But as we can see from The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, in certain ways it does. Could it be that they didn’t think he was worthy of the honour? If so, the should definitely watch the ‘Lubitsch in Berlin’ boxed set available in the Masters of Cinema Series.

 

A young Lubitsch wearing a dark hat.
A young Lubitsch wearing a dark hat.

According to Sabine Hake, ‘categories like nationalism/internationalism and conformism/ marginality are crucial for understanding Lubitsch’s marginal position as a Jew in Germany and an immigrant in the United States’ [x].  Moreover, Jewish culture is central to Lubitsch’s early works with ‘Jewish humour providing a main source of inspiration'[xi]. The tension between diaspora and belongingness, the push and pull, the claiming and the kicking out, are all underlying tensions in Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood and are clearly critical contexts for what ‘Lubitsch’, the person and the work, grew out of and are key to understanding what helped shape him and it.

José Arroyo

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[i] François Truffaut, ‘Lubitsch was a Prince’, The Films of My Life, trans by Leonard Mayhew, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978, pp.50-53.

[ii] Hans Helmut Prinzler, ‘Première partie: Allemagne (1892-1922)’, eds. Bernard Eisenchigtz and Jean Narboni, Ernst Lubitsch, Cahiers du cinema, Cinémathèque Française, Paris, 1985

[iii] Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, John Hopkins Paperback Editions, 2000, p. 19.

[iv] Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life, London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013, p. 5.

[v] Sperber, ibid., p. 12.

[vi] Prinzler, op.cit, pp. 11-12.

[vii] Prinzler, ibid., p. 11.

[viii] Eyman, op. cit., p. 24.

[ix] Cited in Prinzler, op.cit., p. 14.

{x} Sabina Hake, Passions and Deceptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, p. 7

[xi] ibid., p. 29

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