Silent Cinema

The Merry Jail/ Das Fidele Gefängnis (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1917)

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Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 13.00.22A charming three-reel comedy, in a lovely-to-look-at transfer, and very instructive on Lubitsch’s development as a filmmaker. Lubitsch was only twenty-five when he made this loose adaptation of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Germany was still fighting WWI but now beginning to lose it; Lubitsch was still performing on-stage for Reinhardt in supporting parts but was also already a top-billed film star.

Cinema offered brighter prospects in directing as well. Lubitsch’s delight in the medium and its possibilities is everywhere evident in The Merry Jail/ Das Fidele Gefängnis: he puts the camera on the floor (fig. A), on balconies (fig. B), on the street (fig. C1 and C2), outside doors (fig. D) and experiments by filming that already filmed to get a frame within a frame to seem a reflection on a mirror (see fig. E). Lubitsch’s goal is to please and who can but delight at all this imagination and inventiveness mobilized to fulfill that one overarching purpose?

fig a
fig A

 

from a balcony, and pre-figuring Busby Berkeley
Fig. B: from a balcony, and pre-figuring Busby Berkeley
Fig Ca: on the street though notice the character exits frame right
Fig C-a: on the street though notice the character exits frame right
fig 3.B: but enters frame also from the right. Not yet following continuity editing
fig C-b: but enters frame also from the right. Not yet following continuity editing
Outside doors
Fig D. Outside doors
Fig E. Experimenting with frames within frames and reflections
Fig E: xxperimenting with frames within frames and reflections

The Merry Jail is a farce on marriage, desire and social and sexual role-play; one that presages the later, more sophisticated comedies of manners such as The Marriage Circle (1924) and Trouble in Paradise (1932). The film begins with Alice von Reizentein (Kitty Dewall) asking her maid Mizi (Agda Neilson) to call her husband Alex (Harry Liedtke) to breakfast. They search high and low but can’t find him. She goes to call the police but, as she’s about to do so, the postman interrupts with a warrant of arrest for her husband due to disorderly behavior: he is to present himself to the jail at 8:00. Alex is in fact at home, still in white tie from the night before and still so hung-over he falls face first on the warrant.

A farce on marriage
A farce on marriage

 

Alice and Alec each get an invitation to the same ball: the wife via a letter from her sister reminding her ‘if anyone tries to kiss you, don’t giggle: it’s not chic’; the husband via a telegram from a friend promising that the party will be ‘colossal’. Lubitsch stages one of the mini fashion shows in a shop that are common in his films of this period (see also Shoe Salon Pinkus), this time inciting audience desires for the various delectable hats Alice can’t choose amongst.

At the shop, Alice is noticed by a stranger, Egon (Erich Schönfelder), who finds her so attractive he proceeds to importune her all the way home and into her very living room. ‘If you don’t go away, I’ll teach you a lesson you won’t forget’, she tells him on the way. ‘That’s what I want’ he says. This might seem creepy to modern eyes were it not for the lack of real threat, the gentleness of the innuendo, the fact that she always seems to have the upper-hand, and that the whole thing is played in a heightened humorous tone.

 

When the Police representative arrives to pick up her husband for his night in jail and catches them together, Alice asks Egon to ‘play’ her husband so as not to ruin her reputation. He agrees but not before kissing her several times; after all, he remarks delightedly, he’s got a right to; she’s his ‘wife’. In the meantime, Alex, unaware of any of this, decides to chuck jail for the ball. ‘My wife has no idea. That shows how stupid women are’, he tells his friend as they head off. But actually, one of the delights of Lubitsch’s films is in showing how smart women are; it will be the wife who teaches the husband a lesson or two at the end.

In the first act, Lubitsch sets up the situation for the comedy, which he will exploit to the maximum. He also puts into play some of the elements of farce: the physical comedy, the asides to the audience (in this case, visually rendered, with the characters sometimes performing directly to us), the paralleling of situations and their effects on people of different social stations (the maid also goes to the ball), the role-playing and mistaken identity, as well as a humorous reflection on sex roles. This is traditional farce with elements not dissimilar from, say, Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.

 

In The Merry Jail, the situation, the structuring of the basic story and its resolution are really no different than what one would expect on-stage. What is remarkable is how Lubitsch attempts to deploy all of these elements of farce into a visual medium so that editing, rhythm, camera set-ups and composition all contribute to the farce. For example, at the end of the first act when, the wife decides to go to the party, Mizi the maid jumps for joy saying ‘now the coast is clear’. She puts on one of her mistresses’ dresses and then what Lubitsch shows us is a shot of the husband going to the ball with friend in a car, then Egon, pretending to be the husband, going to jail in a carriage accompanied by the warden, then the wife alone in a car, and finally the maid, in evening dress, running after the streetcar and jumping onto it as a kind of visual punchline to the situation comedy and as a gag in itself. There’s a play on the rhyming of the shots in terms of content (two men, two men, one woman, one woman); a careful sequencing of forms of transport to maximize a gag; care taken with how type of shot and timing can incite laughter. The goal is first to delight; secondly, but just as important, to create a series of connections that will be pursued later, in this case that which happens at the ball and that which happens in the jail.

Maurice Chevalier sings about Mitzi in One Hour With You

Lubtisch has the greatest respect for a laugh and he’s not above stooping low (Countess Titti Tutti). There are lovely visual bits such as Mizi smoking and hiding her cigarette from her mistress; or her dancing on the table at the ball; or the way she orders three extra helpings of goose livers. In fact, Lubitsch must have a fondness for the very name because a generation later and in another country he’d have Maurice Chevalier sing a paean to her in One Hour With You (Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor, USA, 1932): ‘Oh that Mitzi!’ (see clip above).

 

Mizi
Mizi

There are visual jokes such as the custom of kissing in Prince Zbrschowsky’s country and how each of the main characters is given a gag at the entrance (the best is again Mizi’s, who ends up kissing the hand of her escort), or how Alex only recognizes Mizi as his own maid when he steals a kiss (‘It IS Mizi!) or how he disparages marriage to his own wife (Are you married? Do I look that dumb?). Lubitsch even makes a joke out of the numbers of footmen who rush to get people’s coats. Comedy directors who don’t already study Lubitsch should: there’s a lot to learn from even the Lubitsch who was only twenty-five

 

 

Pierrots at the ball
Pierrots at the ball

 

The scene at the ball  is less accomplished than what he’d do later in The Oyster Princess but is nonetheless flowing, rhythmic, another musical sequence without music. The handling of the crowds in the sequence, overflowing with black and white Pierrots, the lounging around doorways and ogling: all are purposefully delightful. There’s even a guiding intelligence behind the editing so that Mizi’s final shot is  continuously cut onto scenes at the jail.

 

low-key lighting for Quabbe in jail
low-key lighting for Quabbe in jail

In the jail we get an articulation of themes Lubitsch would go on to develop for the rest of his career: the man with the heart stuck to his arse; or when Egon arrives in the jail, one of the downtrodden prisoners says ‘He seems to be a big shot. He probably is a con artist.’ Things are not what they seem, people are not who they say, appearances are important and attention should be paid, pleasure can ethics, and sex can be morality. The viewer, always assumed to have a great intelligence and a good though weary heart in Lubitsch, is trusted to make sense of what is not explicitly rendered.

More is made explicit in The Merry Jail, however, than would be the case in Lubitsch’s American films. The innuendo is much more varied and covers a lot more of the spectrum of desire in these early German films than in the later American ones. There’s the carnivalesque scene of couples dancing in the Second Act where you see that the men are really women in costume so that it is women dancing with each other; and of course there is also the to me quite fantastic sight of Emil Jannings as the homosexual jail guard Quabbe, first making a pass at Egon, and then kissing the jail warden and expressing his love for him. It’s played for laughs but there is also real feeling and sympathy. I was quite shocked and delighted to see such a representation, so worked through, in such an early film, and particularly one of Lubitsch’s: we will not see this in his American films.

Punishment
Punishment

 

At the end, there’s a general unmasking, an expression of homosexual love, a formation of a couple cutting across class lines with Egon and Mizi, the re-affirmation of the marriage of Alex and Alice through the recovery of the wedding ring, and finally a kiss and a restoration of order – but not before the wife turns the table on her husband and puts him in his place: a delightful three-reeler.

 

Final clinch
Final clinch

The Merry Jail appears in the Criterion DVD of Trouble in Paradise with a score recorded exclusively for the Criterion Collection in 2002 by Aljoscha Zinmerman.

 

 

 

José Arroyo

 

Carmen/Gypsy Blood (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1918)

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One doesn’t really learn much about Lubitsch or indeed about the deployment of ideas of Spanishness from Gypsy Blood[1]. According to Sabine Hake in Passions and Deceptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch, Gyspsy Blood is the result of Lubitsch being ‘forced to comply with specific requests. Asked to direct a promotional film for the new UFA star Pola Negri, he chose Carmen …While the film undoubtedly profited from the popularity of the Bizet opera, its melodramatic story remained … uncharacteristic for Lubitsch’ (p.42).

 

In relation to  ‘Carmen’, Prosper Merimée, Bizet and the drawings of Gustav Doré had together already provided a basic but flexible narrative, an iconography and indeed a music to have passions to, which this DVD makes full, if choppy use of. The elements of the Carmen story may have been relatively new to a mass audience in 1918 or 1921 — although C.B. De Mille had already made a film of the material with Geraldine Farrar in 1915 — but, to us now, Lubitsch’s achievement is to visually render already familiar scenes in ways that still hold interest.

IMG_0743

According to Scott Eyman, the film borrows Mérimée’s flashback structure in which a campfire storyteller tells ‘the tale of a man bewitched.’ We then see Don José Navarro’s conservatism — and as played by Harry Liedtke, his dullness — his provincial background and the purity of his sweetheart, here name Dolores (Grete Diercks) but known by other names in other versions, all evoking a dewy-eyed drippyness: Micaëla in the opera, Cindy Lou in Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones, the Broadway version of the opera,etc.

Carmen, or really Carmencita as she’s called here, gets a spectacular introduction in the famous tobacco factory scene. We see her attempt to spring José from jail, thus ensuring his degradation and downfall, with a sensual boldness that was to remain unmatched for many a year, the scene where she’s got her hands tied behind her back but snatches the flower off Don José’s lapel with her teeth still seems risqué. The scenes of gypsy thieves in the caves are used mainly to exoticise the landscape and as a striking way of filming Pola Negri from inside the cave. The bullfights, seemingly an integration of documentary film footage, are filmed with a sexy and deadly brutality so that the matching of sex and death is a prelude to meeting with Escamillo (Magnus Stifter) and her own final death. Lubitsch is very sparing with his close-ups, saving them mainly to show Carmen’s desire for Escamillo and her death at the hands of Don José at the end.

The narrator, dramatically lit in chiaroscuro to tell the 'story of a man bewitched'.
The narrator, dramatically lit in chiaroscuro to tell the ‘story of a man bewitched’.

 

Many of us have seen the schemas of these scenes over and over again, fleshed out in a variety of modes, genres, productions, versions: the endlessly popular productions of the opera, or perhaps Gades’ flamenco rendering of the Carmen myth on stage, or Saura’s film version of the Gades ballet, or Dorothy Dandridge in Preminger’s Carmen Jones (USA, 1954), or Hayworth in The Loves of Carmen (Charles Vidor, USA, 1948) or Paz Vega In Juan Calvo’s Carmen (Spain, 2003)….We know the story so well and Lubitsch’s version, admittedly an early one, provides only one surprise, on which more later.

flamenco and guitars
flamenco and guitars

 

What do we learn about Lubitsch as a filmmaker from Carmen/Gypsy Blood? We learn that he can handle crowds, that he can handle spectacle, that he’s got an eye for period setting and the telling detail. We also learn that he’s not fully ‘Lubitsch’; had I not known who the director was before watching it, I would have thought it a skilled job of direction but it would have been a question of guesswork as to whether the credit was due to Lubitsch. In fact a film like Frank Borzage’s Desire (1936), which he prepared and produced but did not direct, or One Hour With You (1932), which he prepared and produced but Cukor says he did not direct, were to me saliently Lubitsch upon first viewing in a way that this is not.

Pola approaching, as seen from inside the cave in a striking composition,
Pola approaching, as seen from inside the cave in a striking composition,

Lubitsch’s Carmen was re-titled Gypsy Blood: A Love Tale of Old Spain for its American release by First National. What it reveals about ‘Old Spain’ is that there were a lot of blue-eyed Germans trying to pass themselves off as gypsies, and that they weren’t averse to using blackface to do so, thus reinforcing the notion of Spaniards as the Africans of Europe, with gypsies in particular as descendants of Egyptians. Actually, this blackface might have been what Max Factor’s ‘Light Egyptian’ make-up developed for Lena Horne might have looked like applied to Aryans.

Pola, bored, surly, insolent.
Pola, bored, surly, insolent.

The revelation of this movie is Pola Negri in the title role. She’s someone who’s aware of her sexual attractiveness and uses it as a weapon. She’s the opposite of Henny Porten, insolent, sexy, aware, playful, sneering, coarse. Wid’s Daily, hated it for all the right reasons, calling Negri’s Carmencita, ‘about the crudest, most boorish, unfeminine hoyden that has ever been presented’. Harriet Underhill in the New York Tribune, called it, ‘a gorgeous performance’ with ‘Negri, a powerful actress, who is fascinating, beautiful in a way that has character for its foundation, and intelligent.’

The sap doesn't stand a chance.
The sap doesn’t stand a chance.

Jeannine Basinger sums it thus, ‘‘The role of Carmen gave Pola Negri everything she was best at – primarily the chance to be fiery, tempestuous, and passionate and to break through the boundaries of a woman’s ordinary life. She plays with enormous energy – a radiant and compelling figure on-screen. Variety stated it simply : ‘This Negri is amazing’.[2]

It’s one of the roles, along with Passion (Madame DuBarry) and One Arabian Night (Sumurum), that made Pola Negri a star in America when they were released there in quick succession in 1920-21. According to Mariusz Kotowski, her biographer, it was also Negri’s favourite role: ‘I understood her. I loved her. I was her. It was like playing an organ with innumerable stops. Every motion could be touched upon’. [3] It’s the combination of earthiness and insolence, intelligence and passion, the grace of movement, and a face that can seem ordinary at one moment and very beautiful the next that still captivates today.

 

Escamillo at the bullfights.
Escamillo at the bullfights.

Gypsy Blood was an enormous success unprecedented in the German film industry up to that point. The critic of the Licht-Bild-Bühne wrote, ‘The effectiveness of the German film industry and its indisputable capability to compete successfully on the world market has been unequivocally proven’[4].

In November 1918, censorship was abolished in Germany. According to Hans Helmut Prinzler, ‘On 20 December 1918, the date of the world premiere (of Carmen), the Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils met in Belin and agreed on elections for a German National Assembly. The mood on the streets was verging on civil war’[5]. In 1919, women would obtain the right to vote. The film is on the cusp of a changing world, in a changing film industry, where different roles for women are not only acceptable but demanded. Gypsy Blood, and Negri’s playing of Carmen, capture, evoke and are representative of this process of change.

Still, more and better was still to come from the pairing of Lubitsch and Negri.

A clear influence on the Dietrich of The Devil is a Woman.
A clear influence on the Dietrich of The Devil is a Woman.

 

José Arroyo

 

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[1] Though the footnotes in the inter-titles are very funny trying to do their best to teach and inform: ‘Alcala, a hamlet near Seville famous for its excellent bread’.

[2] All of these quotes are from Jeannine Basinger, Silent Stars Alfred A. Knopf, Kindle Edition, New York, 2000. The Wid’s Daily, and Tribune quotes from location 527 in the Kindle Edition, the Basinger and Variety from location 3411.

 

[3] Mariusz Kotowski, Pola Negri – Hollywood’s First Femme Fatale, University Press of Kentucky, 2014, Kindle version. Lexington Kentucky, location 511.

 

[4] Robert Carringer and Barry Sabath, Ernst Lubitsch: A Guide to References and Resources London: George Prior Publishers, 1978, p. 3

 

[5] Hans Helmut Prinzler, Sirens and Sinners: A Visual History of Weimar Film 1918-1933, Translated from the German by David H. Wilson, London, Thames and Hudson, 2013. Original Edition copyright 2012, Schirmer/Mosel, Munich, 2012, p. 54.

 

Die Augen Der Mummie Ma/ The Eyes of the Mummy (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1918)

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Watching The Eyes of the Mummy in the version distributed by Alpha Entertainment is itself a work of archeology. Each frame is like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of the original positive. We can see the contours, the outline, what the image might have been like. But we don’t know for sure. Clothes, décor, texture—all so important to Lubitsch’s work and the pleasures audiences get from it – are here barely discernible. The quality of the image requires an operation of decipherment at various levels, from the general — what were the images and sounds like originally and what might they have meant to audiences at the time? — to the particular: what does that inter-title so faded as to be unintelligible actually say?

A degraded image
A degraded image

 

According to Sabine Hake in Passions and Deceiptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch, ‘The Eyes of the Mummy announces Lubitsch’s decision in its promotional campaign: “He (Lubitsch) succeeds in persuading his boss and discoverer, Paul Davidson of Union Film, that he must now realise his artistic dreams in the creation of great film drama . Davidson decides to risk a lot of money…”The rest, as the credits try to suggest, is history. (p.38)’

The film is Orientalist tosh that features all the elements, historical and fictional, archeological digs in Egypt had made fashionable: pyramids, sand dunes, high priests, exotic dances, otherworldly trances, sexual enslavement. These would become even more popular with the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1923. Thus the film is riding a wave of Orientalism in Western Culture, a wide-ranging one encompassing the Russian Costumes popularised by Dhiagelev and the Ballets Russes, but also Chinese porcelain, Turkish rugs and the Japanese Screens so adored by Coco Chanel. Its Egyptian variant would manifest itself throughout popular culture in the twenties and beyond via Sheiks, sand dunes, glittery sequins, hair that was bobbed and fringed, mummies and more.

Emil Jannings in blackface as Radu
Emil Jannings in blackface as Radu

The world of The Eyes of the Mummy is not too far removed from that of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, ever with us in endless adaptations, as well as the relatively recent Stephen Sommers franchise of Mummy films (1999-2008), which in itself encompasses a broad and unapologetic Orientalism. All find an origin in the fashion for Egyptology and all are in evidence here. We could say that Lubitsch was on the avant-garde of a fashion that is still with us, a hegemonic discourse that still places and displaces, fetishizes, fixes, and inevitably puts into play dynamics of empire and subjugation.

Pola's eyes, a Mummy's mask
Pola’s eyes, a Mummy’s mask

 

The plot is simple to the point of simplistic but also sexy and sensational: Albert Wendland (Harry Liedtke), a young painter, goes on a sojourn to Egypt and sees a beautiful girl gathering water by a well. The next day at the Palace Hotel, Prince Hohenfels (Max Laurence) plans to go on an outing to see the forbidden burial chamber but is advised that anyone who has visited has come upon terrible misfortune. Albert overhears and asks one of the victims what happened. ‘The eyes are a live’ screams the victim in delirium.

Gathering water by a well
Gathering water by a well

 

When Albert does eventually venture there, Radu (Emil Jannings) the keeper of the tomb takes him to the see the ‘Eyes of the Mummy’ and he, thinking that there’s something familiar and fishy, goes into the antechamber to see what’s behind. Radu tries to stop him, they fight, and Albert accidentally shoots Ragu. When he finally gets to the antechamber, he finds Ma (Pola Negri) who turns out be the reason the eyes of the Mummy were alive: they’re hers.

A painterly representation of the previous image
A painterly representation of the previous image

Ma tells Albert of her sad fate: years ago she’d been gathering water by a well when Radu kidnapped her, made her the eyes of the Mummy and a slave to his ‘every’ wish. Albert promises to free her and does. He takes her home to Europe, paints her portrait and introduces her to all his friends. Bernardhi, a famous showbiz impresario, is impressed by her dancing at a party, puts her on the stage and she becomes a big star. Unfortunately for her, Radu lives. He was rescued by Prince Hohenfels and is now also in Europe. When he finds her, his mere glance is enough to once more put her under his spell. When she resists, he kills her, kisses her and kills himself. It’s almost as much trashy fun to recount as it is to watch.

Lubitsch's dynamic compositions and mise-en-scene
Lubitsch’s dynamic compositions and mise-en-scene

 

The film is worth seeing, even in this degraded print, for further proof of how great Lubitsch is with crowds, for the expressive movement of people within space rendered interesting, new and fresh through inventive compositions. The market scenes, embroidered with little vignettes such as the boys stealing, the magicians doing their act and merchants hawking their wares, demonstrate a vivid and textured rendering of atmosphere. We begin to see how Lubitsch creates memorable compositions that are also places for movement and action such as the initial introduction of the sand dunes; and also how these are edited so that time, setting and action all find a rhythm, one which maximizes the spectacular elements of what we’ve been shown; see for example the shot of Prince Hohenfels returning from his outing, the horses on top of the sand dunes and how we continue seeing the movement of the caravan of people until the very last horse goes out of the frame, evoking a sense of exotic, contemplative and magnificent spectacle.

Note the curtain reflected in the Mirror where Radu will appear
Note the curtain reflected in the Mirror where Radu will appear

The scenes at the Art Gallery, the Alhambra Theatre, and the Hotel all function as set-pieces where Lubitsch sets out to dazzle with crowds of people, costumes, dances or even acrobats. This is a film that adores that which can add a shine or or a shiver and this includes playing with film form; see for example, the super-imposition of images to convey the link between Radu and Ma’s minds but also to render Radu’s presence immaterial, otherworldly and spectral. This of course would become a standard way of showing ghosts in cinema in the classic period but, though not new, it was rare enough and must have seemed thrilling then.

dancing hieroglyphics
dancing hieroglyphics

 

One can also appreciate, albeit in a more muted way, Lubitsch’s use of the mirror at the Prince’s salon. It’s a wonderful composition that not only allows us to view off-screen space but also works narratively to create distinctions between what the characters know and what the audience can see, thus creating suspense. In this instance of course what we see before Ma is the appearance of Radu in the mirror and a threat not only to the lifestyle we see her so enjoying but to her very life.

Radu the ghost
Radu the ghost

Last but not least one of the great pleasure of the film is to see Pola Negri in her prime and on display. She’s as alive as anything in the movie and gets to exhibit a range of characteristics: the virginal water girl by the well, the slave of Radu, the eyes of the mummy, the dis-orientated foreigner in the West, the exotic dancer, the stage star, and finally, the ‘last girl’. She’s vivid and vivrant as all of them.

Pola gets admired dancing like an Egyptian
Pola gets admired dancing like an Egyptian

Her dances are something to see. She wears a very skimpy, harem type outfit with the midriff on display and a a see-through shrug. She does a dance that begins with mix of Turkish belly dancing and ballet that eventually becomes a pastiche of Egyptiana. The men are entranced by the sashay of her hips, the women annoyed. Pola’s a dancer and moves her body sinuously; whoever choreographed those dances was clearly influenced by hieroglyphics. The effect is that of making Pola’s body the focal point of all that was dreamy, scary and sexy about the Orient. As if all of the markets, pyramids, sand dunes, sex and tombs were somehow condensed in the figure of Pola dancing. Two different types of spectacle rendered simultaneously interchangeable and other, enticing and threatening.

 

A film to see even in this degraded copy with that jarring and intrusive score by Rachel Gutches, whom I note has bagged the copyright for the whole thing. According to Hake, there are opening titles to the German version that are illuminating about  Lubitsch’s self-critical attitude at this point. According to her, they tell us, ‘This film had a big budget, that is, two pal trees and was shot on location in Egypt, that is, in the Rudersdorf limestone mountains (near Berlin)’ (p.44). Had I known that, I might not have been as self-conscious about laughing at some sections.

 

José Arroyo

Released in the USA on the 25th of June 1922.

 

 

 

 

Anna Boleyn (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1920)

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A disappointment. Until now, all Lubitsch films I’ve seen have been ones  I can imagine non-specialist audiences delighting in today. Anna Boleyn is of obvious historical interest — the most expensive film made in Germany to that point, thousands of Berliners worked on it, the President of the Weimar Republic visited the set sparking off riots amongst the extras, etc. I can’t imagine admirers of Lubitsch or of Weimar Cinema or of Silent Cinema NOT wanting to see Anna Boleyn. The story is a legendary historical tragedy so famous everyone’s familiar with the bare outline of it: Henry VIII (Emil Jannings) rejects his wife and his religion for Anne Boleyn (Henny Porten) but eventually sends her to the scaffold when she can’t produce what he wants, a male heir.

Henny Porten and Emil Jannings
Henny Porten and Emil Jannings

Anna Boleyn is an attempt by Lubitsch and his producers to repeat the success of Madame DuBarry (re-titled Passion in the US). Lotte Eisner historically situates both films as part of the Kostümfilme cycle, a ‘flood of historical films that swamped German cinema from 1919 to 1923-24’, which she damns as characterized by a ‘rather superficial treatment of certain purely exterior elements’ and sees as ‘an expression of the escapism of a poverty-stricken, disappointed nation which, moreover, had always been fond of the glitter of parades’[i].

No expense was spared
No expense was spared to show the glitter of parades

No expense was spared in the making of Anna Boleyn. According to the Lichtbild-Bühne in 1920, ‘‘The buildings alone gave employment to 14 site foremen, 200 carpenters, 400 plasterers, sculptors, etc. The historically accurate copy of Westminster Abbey required 380 sculptures, while 500 horses and 4000 riders and spectators were required for the tournament scene. Miss Henny Porten had to have sixteen costumes, and Mr. Jannings ten.’ [1] It’s always a bad sign when producers publicise numbers; as if large numbers of extras and high cost were indexically linked to quality with the publicity magically transubstantiating accounting into aesthetics. No one’s that much of a sucker.

The film certainly looks wonderful and must have seemed an astonishing spectacle in its time: the river barges, the jousting tournament, the weddings and coronations: all look sumptuous. These scenes seem as much of the time they were made in as of the time they portray and picking apart this mix of Weimar Berlin and Tudor England can in itself be a kick for the audience.

The Queen, child and nurse
The Queen in foreground,  nurse in background, child in the middle, almost out of sight

Anna Boleyn boasts a very beautiful Henny Porten – noble, self-sacrificing, loving — and Emil Jannings as Henry VIII. This film helps us understand why Porten was the biggest star of her era in Germany: aside from her beauty, she embodied particular ideals of womanhood: this Anne Boleyn is submissive, loves poetry, rural pleasures, her country and her baby. Her final scene where she goes trembling to her death for the good of her child, her country and the future remains moving and is a powerful ideation of the value of self-sacrifice, probably just the moment before all we’ve since come to know as ‘Weimar Berlin’ would sneer those notions down and jazz them out of view for another generation. We understand too why Jannings was considered the era’s greatest actor; he’s brutish here and with a violent edge but also evoking a sexual danger  I’ve not seen in him previously.

A crowd, framed and given character.
A crowd, framed and given character.

Lubitsch does give character to a crowd. It seems to have a life of its own here, a personality, and one that shows different moods in different scenes; and of course this is an example of how Lubitsch told the of the social through the private, the historical through the personal. According to Hans Helmut Prinzler, the production was a great success. It cost around 8 million marks but ‘ticket sales in the US alone, however brought in 200,000 US dollars, almost double those costs.’[2]

Lubitsch frames Anna Boleyn, Weimar Germany Tudor England
Lubitsch frames Anna Boleyn; Weimar Germany frames Tudor England

 

This lovely tinted version looks sumptuous and is a real pleasure to watch. But this is the first of Lubitsch’s films that I haven’t wanted to show an excerpt to friends and say, ‘Look at this; isn’t Lubitsch great!’ If he is in this film; it’s in ways that I can’t yet fathom or know how to appreciate.

 

Jannings is both hammy AND great as Henry VIII.
Jannings is both hammy AND great as Henry VIII.

José Arroyo

 

dying to do the right thing
dying to do the right thing

 

 

[1] Hans Helmut Prinzler, Sirens and Sinners: A Visual History of Weimar Film 1918-1933, Translated from the German by David H. Wilson, London, Thames and Hudson, 2013. Original Edition copyright 2012, Schirmer/Mosel, Munich, 2012, p.92.

 

 

[2] ibid. p. 92

 

[i] Lotte Eisner, ‘Lubitsch and the Costume Drama’, The Haunted Screen, p. 72.