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.

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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.

 

Grace of Monaco (Olivier Dahan, France/USA/Belgium/Italy/Switzerland, 2014)

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grace of monaco

 

Grace of Monaco is the kind of movie where the star wears a billowing ballgown, races frantically through endless palace corridors and jumps into a huge bed …. to weep. Life is so very difficile; even when Maria Callas (Paz Vega) — wearing a fabulous Jeanne Toussaint panther ring —  is your bestie, warbles beautifully,and goes horseback riding with you as a show of support. Luckily there’s a ball at the end so that jewels, gowns and seating arrangements can play their role in simultaneously resolving affairs of state and of the heart.

Nicole Kidman gets an endless amount of close-ups, some so extreme that her earrings are out of focus. The whole film is designed so we can see her be beautiful and suffer nobly while she learns to say goodbye to Hollywood and all the fun of the movie star life and hello to politics, duty, and sacrifice in her new role as Princess of Monaco. Callas’ drive for artistic expression above all else is contrasted with Grace’s willingness to sacrifice art for family and country. Lubtisch was already sending up this type of material a hundred years ago. One looks on the screen in a daze that might might have been caused by the diamonds display but is more accurately attributed to  the drivel that is the story and its treatment.

Derek Jacobi is the fey and worldly aristocrat who teaches Grace protocol. Frank Langella is, I kid you not, Father Tuck, guardian of Grace’s soul. Tim Roth is Prince Rainier, the  unappreciative husband; and first glowers at Grace but then ends up giving her warm glow due to her great diplomatic skills and even greater love for the nuclear family. Grace learns how to act serenity whilst dealing with palace intrigue and other people’s selfishness. At the end Grace is so good at her new role that she gets a standing ovation for her efforts; even old grouch De Gaulle is moved to stand. It’s pure trash, very demodée but lovely to look at.

The film does have an interesting exploration on the nature of acting and performance, in life and in art. Some scenes of Nicole Kidman rehearsing her lines and her expressions would rival De Niro’s ‘Are You Looking At Me’ scene in Taxi Driver if only the film were better. As it is, I can’t in good faith recommend it to anyone  except lovers of fine jewellery.  However, I must say that if you put aside all considerations of film art and are happy to look at glossy layouts in fashion magazines, a boxed set with Madonna’s W.E., the Naomi Watts Diana and this Grace of Monaco would make for one glamorous binge.

 

José Arroyo

The Adventures of Prince Achmed/ Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, Germany, 1926)

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Paul Shallcross, who today played the lovely score he composed for the film, gave an excellent introduction as to why the film has historically been revered as a landmark: the youth of the director, the painstaking mode of animation involving cardboard silhouettes and thin sheets of lead which took three years to complete, how each frame was lit from below and photographed from above using layered backgrounds one painstaking frame after another, how famous avant-garde figures such as Walter Ruttmann, Berthold Bartosch and Carl Koch worked on the film etc. But personally, I always thought there was a reason why silhouette films never took off. It always felt too much like a successful attempt in gaining maximum expressivity from a limited vocabulary; and why bother? The images are delicate and pretty. The story, from the Arabian nights and featuring Aladdin, his lamp, witches, sorcerers, dragons, warriors and princesses — and a setting ranging from the Middle East to China — is exciting and involving. But why not tell the same story using a greater visual vocabulary that allowed more movement and a greater range of expression? Today I got my answer.

I had ever seen the film on a big screen before, and it made a difference. I had never seen it with a mixed race audience, and it made a difference. I had never seen it in a room full of kids accompanied by their parents, and that was the biggest difference of all: they were involved, they understood, they appreciated it. They couldn’t understand the sub-titles but they kept asking their parents what was happening and why (one insistent kid, who obviously couldn’t speak English, had a whole exciting line of questioning for his parents in Spanish from beginning to end). On one level the children understood much less than I; on another they made me see what I hadn’t been able to see before; that a limited vocabulary might not be a bad way of communicating with an audience who doesn’t have a greater one at its disposal.

That’s not the whole story of course; the film has ever been beautiful to look at; the delicate filigree curlicues of the cutouts, the shape of the figures, the rendering of ‘The Orient’, the romantic fantasy of the world created for the film. All have many pleasures (and some dilemmas) to offer any audience.

The event was another success for Flatpack, an achievement best resumed as way of involving local artists with some of the greatest artworks in film history and engaging a wide range of local communities with that work in a landmark location worth discovering or re-discovering, in this case the new Library. May such efforts long continue.

 

Seen at the Birmingham Central Library, 8th June 2014

Birmingham Central Library 8th of June 2014
Birmingham Central Library 8th of June 2014

The Opening of Possessed (Clarence Brown, USA, 1931)

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I love this opening for so many reasons: the way it begins with the factory whistle, tilts and then cranes down to show the crowd of workers surging out of the factory, settles on the boyfriend (Wallace Ford), finds Joan Crawford, and tracks back with  them as a  couple. We see it’s a working couple, a make-do couple, a couple only because it’s the best available in a town without many options. I love the dissolve into the next shot and the way the camera then tracks along with the couple but with the background in focus so we can see the poverty, the drunkenness, a fight between a married couple where the woman is left at home, alone and distressed. We know that’s Crawford’s future if she stays there. I love the way Crawford shows her tiredness and dissatisfaction and the way that she says her only way out of this life and this place is her looks and whatever fellas like about her; we all know what it is, that she’s got it and that she’s willing to use it. I love the way Brown creates a dreamyness of tone when Crawford gazes in on the train from the outside and he frames the windows of the train carriage as a view into a different world, a better world, more glamorous, like film frames run through a sprocket, like cinema. It’s how Brown conveys that going to the movies is many factory workers’ way out of a repetitive, dehumanising, exploitative milieu of mindless labour and into another dimension, a marvellous one of glamorous possibilities. And an awestruck Crawford is our conduit into it. She’s us; us as we could be if we had her looks, her drive and her gumption. It’s a technically superb opening, beautiful to look at, expressive of social conditions and full of feeling.

track laid out for possessed
The crew, cast, and enormous track that made the shot possible

According to Donald Spoto, in the book on Crawford he intriguingly entitled, Possessed, ‘the film struck a powerful responsive chord among Depression-era women of 1931, deprived of prospects and caught in frightening economic circumstances. In their neighbourhood screens was Joan Crawford — sensual yet strong-willed, vulnerable but determined, and willing, as Marian says, “to use whatever men find attractive about me” to succeed.

In a way Marian was Joan Crawford’ (p.87).

And according to Crawford Clarence Brown was ‘a genius’ (p.86). This is certainly a great and complex job of directing, a great performance from Crawford and a film that lays claim to being one of the land-mark films of the pre-Code era.

José Arroyo

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.

Anne Thompson, The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, An Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System

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11 billianaThe $11 Billion Year

In June 2013, at a University of Southern California event with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg predicted an implosion of the film industry: the failure at the box office of ‘tentpoles’, mega-budget movies that are designed with potential sequels in mind and anchor a studio’s release schedule, ‘are going to go crashing to the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.’

 

According to Anne Thompson in her interesting and illuminating new book, The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, An Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System, the prediction came true. White House Down, After Earth, The Lone Ranger, Turbo and R.I.P.D. tanked at the box-office and the whole cinematic apparatus — the paradigm of production, distribution, exhibition — and the technological, economic and political structures that underpin it, did indeed change.

 

‘In 2012 US domestic movie box-office delivered a record-breaking $11 billion, up 8.4 % on the previous years’ Thompson writes. ‘If record foreign box office added to total it would have been a $35 billion year’. But as Thompson goes on to show, ‘despite appearances, the movie business isn’t thriving. The seeds of the industry’s destruction were present in 2012’.

Film in 2012

Inspired by William Goldman’s, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway, an examination of the state of Broadway and its theatre through following the 1967-68 Season, Thompson follows, in chronological order, the developments in film in 2012: The discoveries of the Sundance Film Festival in January (Searching for the Sugar Man, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Your Sister’s Sister); the backgrounds to two potential franchises released in the Spring and why one worked (The Hunger Games) and one didn’t (John Carter); and how in 2012 the word “film” officially became an anachronism because by then the changeover to digital was pretty much complete.

 

Thompson also demonstrates how in May, the Cannes International Film Festival launched Cannes veteran Michael Haneke’s Amour and Cannes newbie Paul Thomas Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. ‘The studios use Cannes as a massive marketing opportunity to launch their pictures in the all-important global market, which has outstripped North America and now represents more than 50 per cent of the film industry’s annual grosses.’

 

Comi-Con in July underlined the importance of the comic-book movie and how the competition between those superheroes based on Marvel and those on DC carries over from the comic-book fan-base onto the film adaptations. According to Thompson: ‘Warner Bros, which acquired DC Comic in 1969 and therefore movie and television rights to the jewels in the DC crown, Superman and Batman, discovered in the early eighties that many fans of the comics were attending Comic-Con – and would come to see their movies. Soon the promotion of movies inspired by comic books expanded to genre films, and eventually just about anything aimed at the studio’s sweet spot, the young male demo’.

 

Thompson offers interesting insights into how the Fall film festivals (Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York) helped launch Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi and Lincoln; how female representation in popular movies hit its lowest in five years (only 28% of speaking parts in the highest grossing US movies were women) and how gender politics affected the reception of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty; and lastly, she gives a sharp and entertaining account of ten things that changed the Oscar race that year (One of them is that on the opening day of Zero Dark Thirty, three US Senators accuse the filmmakers of inaccuracy).

The Whole System Has Changed

What becomes clear in the book is that the whole system has changed, at least as it pertains to the ‘Global’ film industry with a primary base in the United States (Bollywood, Nollywood, Chinese Cinema etc. are all bypassed in this account). The overall structure of the industry is still oligopolistic with six majors who are signatories to the Motion Picture Association of America: News Corp-owned Fox, Sony, Warner Bros (which owns HBO), Viacom owned Paramount (which also owns CBS and Nickelodeon), Comcast owned NBC Universal (which owns USA and the Sci-Fi Channel) and Disney (which owns ABC and ESPN). Lionsgate, who is not a signatory to the MPAA, is now also considered a major. These companies control the film industry. But what that industry is has now changed.

 

Movies are now made on digital. On one hand, this permits all kinds of additional special effects, which can potentially make them very expensive; on the other hand, more personal dramas that don’t require much post-production can now be made on a micro-budget. As a result, in 2012 Sundance logged more than 4000 feature submissions.

 

Screen conversions from 35mm to digital expanded globally from 16, 000 in 2009 to 36,000 in 2010 and by 2012 the changeover was complete. Studios benefitted economically but even filmmakers are wary of digital. They ‘try to sock away a 35mm print of their films for safe-keeping as digital formats demand constant, expensive upgrading to the latest system’.

 

Thompson vividly demonstrates how the whole distribution system has changed. It used to be that movies played in theatres, then the film was made available after three or four months at a premium cost by Video on Demand (VOD), then sell and rent on DVD’s, then show it on pay cable, and then make it available on broadcast television all over the world. Now there’s a rush to get everything to Video on Demand (VOD) as quickly as possible and some films were available on VOD before they screened in theatres or bypassed theatres altogether. According to Thompson, ‘‘close to a quarter of the 2012 Sundance releases were made available concurrent with or before their theatrical openings on VOD outlets – cable iTunes, Hulu or filmmakers’ own website’ Recently, Josh Whedon’s In Your Eyes is an example of a film that bypassed traditional distribution structures and went right to VOD on the very same day it was premiered at the Tribeca film festival, the type of distribution theatre owners most fear because it renders them obsolete.

A Four Quadrant Movie

In 1982 Spielberg’s E.T. was the biggest box office success of its year. It was based on an original story and it stayed on screen for over a year in America. It was the ‘four quadrant movie’’, films that are equally appealing to young, old, male or female that studios constantly chase after. But of the top 26 films of 2012,’ nineteen were based on some other property, eight were sequels, four were comic-book franchises, two were remakes, two were prequels, and seven were originals’. Moreover, the biggest market is now China. it grew 36% in 2012, outstripping Japan as American’s biggest foreign market. American studios are so eager to curry favour there that they went so far as to re-edit Django Unchained an Iron Man 3 in order to get it through the censors and into that now lucrative market.

 

 

According to Thompson, in their University of California talk ‘Spielberg and Lucas were basically calling attention to the end of the movie business in which they grew up’. Spielberg, as powerful a director as there is in Hollywood, had struggled to get Lincoln made. It was a serious drama with no sequel potential. It wasn’t based on a comic book, and getting the money to make it had been so difficult he considered turning to HBO.

 

Steven Soderbergh did indeed go to HBO to make the Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra. As a studio movie it would have cost $70 million to make and the studios didn’t want to risk it, even with Matt Damon and Michael Douglas attached to star. It was made instead at HBO for $23 million, won the Emmy, and was released theatrically outside the US. Oliver Smith, Martin Scorcese, Michael Mann, Neil Jordan, and Spielberg himself now all routinely work in television. That’s where serious drama and comedy that isn’t aimed at adolescents are being made.

Aesthetic Consequences

What Thompson doesn’t explore are the aesthetic consequences of this. What might it mean to cut off romance, interiority, complex character psychology and so on from big screen presentation. Many might ask whether it would matter if the bigger and smaller screens carve up different genres or different themes amongst themselves, with spectacle relegated to the big screen, and more personal dramas to the smaller screen. But I think it matters a huge amount. In a now famous ‘Memo to Hollywood’ Manohla Dargis in The New York Times tells filmmakers the following:

‘ You know that moody shot that you and your director of photography anguished over for hours and hours? It may look beautiful, but there are critics who will never know, which certainly encourages them to pay more attention to the plot than the visuals. Viewers who bypass the theatrical experience and prefer watching movies on their televisions and tablets may not mind. Some directors, especially those whose talking heads and two shots look better on small screens, also won’t care; others just want their work seen however, wherever. But I bet there are directors who would freak if they knew how some critics were watching their movies’.

 

So should anyone interested in the art of movies since, perhaps even more fundamentally, sometimes even basic plot is not optimally decipherable on a tablet or phone. What one sees and how one is shown it is essential to how we experience and evaluate entertainment and art. Of course it does not always follow that bigger is better. But there should be some correlation between how a movie is designed to be seen and how it is in fact seen; at least as concerns evaluation of all kinds, but particularly that by professional critics.

Thompson’s Got Great Sources

If Thompson doesn’t answer this type of question she does touch on many others I have not addressed here. Thompson is a journalist who is there at all the events and festivals she’s writing about. She’s got great sources, and she seems to be writing in the heat of thought as it sparks to life and in the midst of events as they unfold. We get to follow, in chronological order, the developments in film in 2012 from Sundance to the Academy Awards (ultimately awarded in February 2013). Thompson thus affords herself and us an eye-witness and critical look at the state of the industry and the state of the art. And as her vividly entertaining and informative book makes clear in so many different ways, the prognosis is not good.

 

 

José Arroyo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anne Thompson, The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, An Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System

Anne Thompson is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Thompson on Hollywood

Newmarket Press for IT Books, UK: Harper Collins, 2014

Available from Kindle Amazon and other outlets.

A shorter version of this review was published in The Conversation.

The Class of ‘92 (Benjamin Turner, Gabe Turner, UK, 2013)

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The Class of 92

For the few who might not know, The Class of ’92 was a group of kids who loved football, were recruited by Manchester United at an early age, rose up the ranks of the youth teams, and finally made the first team. In 1992, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville won the FA Youth Cup. Paul Scholes was an FA Youth Cup finalist in 1993 and Phil Neville, Gary’s brother, captained the team to the FA Youth Cup in 1995. Collectively they’re referred to in this film as the Class of ’92 that went on to win the Double (FA Cup and the League Title) in 1996 and the Treble (the double plus the Champions League ) in 1999. The central narrative is to prove how wrong Alan Hansen was when he asserted that ‘You can’t win anything  with kids’ and to show what good friends these kids were and continue to be.

 

The film is an unabashed exercise in nostalgia and mythmaking. Tony Blair appears to praise the achievements of the players but also to big up the Blair Years in which those achievements took place. Danny Boyle who know a thing or two about legends, iconicity and the mobilizing of imagery into myth-making, speaks here about what Man U meant to his family and what the success of the club meant to the city. Mani of The Stone Roses and Primal Scream waxes nostalgic about Manchester in those times and lyrical about the players’ achievements. It’s like mixing Louis VIX’s search for ‘la gloire’ with some ‘I was born in a schack’ US narrative of success brought about by will and work and discipline.

 

As a movie, it’s not much. As an analysis, it’s pretty basic – we don’t understand anything any better than we did at the beginning of the film. Plus I’m pretty sick of all the bloody nostalgia for the ‘Hacienda’ days which to me is just old men kidding themselves that their youth was better than anybody else’s. However, it’s a very enjoyable watch for football fans. These icons speak to each other like the friends they are and seem human and knowable in their interactions.  Moreover, we get to see some of the great moments in football of the last two decades and get the perspective of those who created them. Cantona, who’s now acting in movies, appears in order to praise. Zinédine Zidane, more glamorous and charismatic than all the rest of them put together, also pops up to eulogize. As a movie, it’s something one might have expected Sky Sports to quickly paste up for endless replay. But it must be said that the reason these types of films re-play is because we simply can’t get enough of them.

 

Zidane on Paul Scholes
Zidane on Paul Scholes

José Arroyo

Neighbors (Nicholas Stoller, USA, 2014)

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neighbors

 

Coarse, vulgar, cheap, low: Neighbors is a very big hit and a very depressing sight. It’s as if the terrain mined by Porky’s in the early 80’s has now become the only vein American comedy excels at: tit jokes, pissing contests, cock measurements, passing out with drink, getting high on anything. You can’t blame the very attractive cast. Most of them are comedians; and who could blame a comedian for stooping to a laugh? Moreover it’s funny: the audience reaction is proof of it. It is in fact also very intelligent and has some good lines (‘He looks like something a gay guy designed’, say Seth Rogen’s character of Zac Affron’s). But there’s the rub for me: all that intelligence, all that comedic talent… for what? Tit jokes? Even ‘with a twist’? In the words of Jonathon Gatehouse, ‘Everywhere you look these days, America is in a race to embrace the stupid’. Neighbors is just one more example. A sad commentary on American Comedy and on America itself.

 

José Arroyo

Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, USA, 2014)

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Godzilla-new-poster-616x907I thought Godzilla the dullest blockbuster of the season but then, after yawning for an hour and half, the monsters finally arrived and woke me up. It’s a movie where everyone seems to have done an amazing job except director, writers and actors (Juliette Binoche excepted). Some of the shots are jawdroppingly good — the vfx truly astonishing, with the scene on the bridge where the monster rises behind the hero and Godzilla’s arrival at the airport being particular delights.

But maybe a monster movie SHOULD start with a monster rising out of the ocean and stomping on people. All that useless exposition…and to so little end: the background with the mother and father; the sentimental cringe of the father’s birthday greetings at the beginning and middle of the film; the son repeating the father’s cycle; the rescuing of someone else’s child paralleling the danger faced by his own —  it all leaves one either cringing or yawning

Hollywood filmmakers should find something other than psychiatry to entertain them. It really seems to have reduced their understanding of people, of individual character and their motivation, and of the political and social contexts in which recognisable people might live in. Thus in Godzilla, the filmmakers’ control over the means of expression vastly exceeds an understanding that never seems to go beyond Pychology 101 and Intro to Film Studies 101 (there seemed to be a shot copying everything ever done here — The Birds, the Aliens films etc) with a dash of cod-Buddhist philosophy thrown in so that Godzilla can come and re-order the ‘natural balance’ of things. There’s a ‘feather-in-brain’ moment too where Ken Watanabe brings out his father’s watch to remind us of the Atomic Bomb (as if a film called Godzilla in which the monsters are powered by nuclear energy itself needed further reminders).

The actors are supremely bad: when one’s noticing that Bryan Cranston is wearing the same wig fifteen years later; or feeling cheated because Aaron Taylor-Johnson hasn’t taken his shirt off but isn’t doing much else; or longing for Mathew Broderick to appear from somewhere show his charismatic face and crack a few jokes, there’s a problem with the story-telling and acting. Ken Watanabe seems to have three expressions: one where he turns his mouth into an o; another, more expressive, where he turns his mouth into an oval; and then a grim and resolute downturn of the mouth. He does say Godzilla with a Japanese accent and with particular relish for which much can be forgiven; and to be fair, it’s is not as if he’s given a lot to do.

Except for Juliette Binoche, Godzilla does give a more compelling performance than the rest of the cast: the monster design and animatronics or whatever vfx skills brought the monster to life are indeed terrific and worthy of praise. The gradual introduction of the monster, the design and execution of the shots of destruction in the Hawaii and San Francisco sections of the film, the detail and amount that one can see going on inside each shot; all are thrilling. There are shots that truly do make one go ‘Wow’! However, even when the monsters do start stomping on cities or fighting each other, the story lacks tension and suspense. I was longing for them to stomp one someone we were meant to care about but didn’t really.

Godzilla is indeed spectacular. If your interest is in vfx and on the look of things, it may well surprise and delight. It’s certainly worth seeing on IMAX in order to enjoy those pleasures to the full. But the pleasures the film satisfies are those of spectacle rather than of narrative, and given that so much time was spent on narrative, this really counts as a failure in this film. Ultimately, Godzilla illustrates how empty and ultimately unsatisfying spectacle on its own can be, that there’s a story-telling dimension to spectacle itself, and that a monster movie that doesn’t scare, doesn’t thrill and doesn’t allegorize with intelligence is not much of a monster movie at all.

 

José Arroyo

The Oyster Princess/ Die Austernpinzessin (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1919)

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Ossie Oswalda takes a bath
Ossie Oswalda takes a bath

 

Sabine Hake in Passions and Deception: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch, calls The Oyster Princess, ‘the first Lubitsch comedy that shows a distinct filmic style’ (p. 40), and cites Béla Bálazs as writing ‘Here the comic mode already emanates from a directorial style that is founded on self mockery. Film fashions and film manners, even filmic effects are unmasked , and all that only through a slight touch of exxageration’ (pp.40-41).

In The Oyster Princess, a rich American oyster heiress (Ossie Oswalda) living in a palace German Aristocrats can no longer afford wants to get married. Her friend has nabbed a count so her father, Mister Quaker (Victor Janson), promises a prince. They go through the list of candidates and find a tip-top but poor one, Prince Nucki (Harry Liedtke). Before he commits, however, he sends his valet, Josef (Julius Falkenstein) to check her out first and, after a series of incidents, it is Josef who ends up married to Ossie. However, the real prince and the oyster princess eventually meet accidentally, fancy each other rotten, and everything ends happily ever after.

 

sly and horny apprentices abound in early Lubitsch
sly and horny apprentices abound in early Lubitsch

Ossie Oswalda throws things around with delightful exuberance. Lubitsch uses rhythmic repetition again, servants and servants and servants, or money being borrowed from person to person to person to person, diminishing at each stage for comic effect. There are apprentices: Gerhard Ritterband, the same one that got slapped around in Die Puppe, gets slapped around again, and again to comic effect. There’s a bandleader (Curt Bois) who boosts the orchestra into a frenzied fox-trot and accentuates each change in rhythm with a sharp jut of his butt.

Curt Bois leads with his butt.
Curt Bois leads with his butt.

There is a fantastic fox-trot sequence which is like a musical number with all the energetic and utopian thrust such numbers would later convey in Classic Hollywood . It’s very long, with dancing all over the house, including through the kitchens, the stairways and so on and is a cinematic tour-de-force .

The exuberance of the fox-trot extends even down to the kitchens
The exuberance of the fox-trot extends even down to the kitchens

The film exudes a love of all things American, particularly its assertion of democracy. The Oyster King is obviously a grotesque parody of an American millionaire but he’s as good as anybody, can buy princes who in this film are not expected to be either bright or useful, and is not impressed by anything except love. The sets are still papier-maché-y but opulent; the clothes delightful. Americans are satirised but fondly and with admiration; and the coming together of German Aristocracy and American Democracy are seen as an ideal, one better enjoyed in bed and best seen through a key-hole.

 

Ossie and Prince Nucki through a keyhole
Ossie and Prince Nucki through a keyhole

Hake beleives that ‘with The Oyster Princess Lubitsch had come into his own (p. 41). One can but agree.

José Arroyo

I Don’t Want to be a Man/ Icht möchte kein Mann sein A Comedy in Three Acts by Ernst Lubitsch (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1918)

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I don't want to be a man I Don’t Want to be  a Man/ Icht möchte kein Mann sein is a delightful sex comedy, a movie about teenage rebellion from a hundred years ago, funny and amiable but not without edge. Ossie (Ossie Oswalda) is a young woman who enjoys eating, drinking, smoking, playing poker and flirting with the boys. What’s not to like? Well, for one, her governess (Margarete Kupfer) doesn’t think it ‘proper’ for a young girl to do these things. She prevents her from smoking but then can’t stop herself from getting giddy on a few drags herself. Likewise, Ossie’s uncle, Counsellor Brockmüller (Ferry Sikla) is shocked to catch her drinking a thimbleful of wine from an itsy-bitsy wine glass but then gulps away on a huge goblet himself. The older generation has not only forgotten what it is to be young, they’ve become hypocrites in the process. The boys love Ossie and gangs of them gather on the street as she sits by her window. But when she flirts with them, the governess is appalled: ‘And you want to be a refined young girl!’ ‘I don’t want that at all!’ says Ossi.

Ossie's governess doesn't practice what she preaches
Ossie’s governess doesn’t practice what she preaches

It seems like all the adults are preventing Ossie from having fun, from doing what they do as a matter of course, from being a person, from being herself. All their urges to be ‘proper’ are experienced as restrictions on personal freedom and individual desires. When her uncle goes away on a trip she gets a new guardian, Dr. Kersten (Curt Götz), a handsome but stuffy disciplinarian who asks that she stand in his presence and bow to his wishes. ‘I’ll break you down yet!’ he tells her. ‘ Why didn’t I come into the world as a boy?’ she in turn moans at us in the final inter-title of the 1st act, soliciting our agreement as to the unfairness of gender roles and the injustice of their social enforcement.   These early scenes, showing as they do social constraints on individual freedom and identity; and more specifically, patriarchal constraints on women’s desires and behaviour, are an eye-opener to anyone interested in the representation of women or the on-screen treatment of gender. I had never seen Ossie Oswalda before. She’s as alive, witty and transgressive a presence as I remember on-screen and I found her a revelation: irrepressible, joyous, transparent, energetic, social; a utopian flower in the worldly garden of weeds, a light that everyone’s out to extinguish.   One would expect the Second Act to ‘correct’ some of Ossie’s transgressions, to claw back and reclaim for men some of the injustices towards women exposed in the first act. But this is Lubitsch. We do get to see some of the difficulties men have in dressing: those bow ties can be such a problem; and poor men have to give up their seats in the U-bahn when ladies are standing up; and they musn’t whine; and they’re so aggressive at the coat-check!; and the way women chase them is so ruthless! Boo-hoo. All of this ‘poor men’ malarkey is clearly undermined by Ossie being OUT, without a chaperone, on the street, in the U-bahn and in the hustle and bustle of a glamorous nightclub, doing what she wants and being free.

Ossie dragged up to go out.
Ossie dragged up to go out.

At the beginning of the second act, we see the sly pleasures Ossie takes in having all the taylors fight to take her measurements for her men’s suit. In the latter part, we see her being chased by women and not getting a lot of joy out of it: Ossie’s clearly heterosexual. We’ll find out her guardian’s sexuality is much more questionable. We already know that sex is the very air Lubitschland breathes. When Ossie sees her uncle at the nightclub flirting with a girl, she sets out to steal her away from him but before she can do so, the girl has already found someone else and Ossie, masquerading as a young roué, becomes friends with her guardian.   On the evidence of this second act, Lubitsch is already a master of the medium. When we’re shown the nightclub (fig. 1), we get a wonderful composition with waiters entering from the left bottom corner of the frame on a diagonal and towards the band leader, set up as the frame’s horizon, to which waiter, after waiter, after waiter, is heading. The composition is brilliant, the staging sublime , and the rhythm of the scene, already that of the ‘Lubitsch’ we know.

fig 1
fig 1

Lubitsch handles compositions in depth with ease and they recur frequently here. For examples, see the scene where Ossie and her guardian are in opposite balconies whilst the dancing happens between them (Fig. 2), the frame split vertically into three areas of action, with Ossie in the upper, receding third. The upper two thirds of the vertical frame is also split three ways horizontally, with Ossie, out of focus in the middle of the top third; her guardian and the woman Ossie sets out to steal from him are in focus and occupying all of the bottom third of the frame. See also the marvelous use of the mirror, when Ossie momentarily forgets she’s a man and is laughed at for powdering her nose, and how this enables us to see space that would normally be off-screen, distinguish between foreground and background, and create a dynamism in the composition through Ossie looking down, the women laughing and looking directly at the mirror, and the men looking in the opposite direction, towards the coat-check. Note too how this composition is not only dynamic and aesthetically pleasing but also coheres narratively: Ossie is shown twice, herself and her reflection, at the moment that she forgets that she is a woman passing as a man. Terrific.

fig. 2
fig. 2
fig.3
fig.3

I Don’t Want to be a Man/ Icht möchte kein Mann sein well illustrates one of the things Lubitsch learned from Reinhardt and that Lubitsch would be an acknowledged master of from this period until he departed for Hollywood in 1922 and beyond (see, for example 1929’s Eternal Love) : his handling of the crowd scenes. And this not only in the nightclub scenes with their dozens of extras but in other story-telling moments where an abundance of extras does not on the face of it seem absolutely necessary: our introduction of the guardian in the nightclub for example, where he’s framed by a bevy of people dynamically arranged in the staircase behind him; and the rhyming shot with Ossie in front of a similar grouping, before both of them coming together (see fig. 4)

fig. 4
fig. 4
fig. 4
fig. 5

Lubitsch likes actors so that he always gives each a bit of business. One can look at any part of the crowd and find something interesting going on, something thematically linked to the story. See for example the still from the coat-check scene below (fig. 5): Ossie is in the centre, the woman on the bottom right already checking ‘him’ out, the two women chatting on the right hand corner that will also soon be flirting with ‘him’, the man talking to the two women in the background in front of a curtain they will soon move through, thus creating a feeling of depth; see also the man at the coat-check looking towards the crowd of men who are all headed towards him jostling to get their hats checked-in. It’s not only beautiful to look at, but lively; one gets a sense of a whole world, a complex one, one in which Ossie’s story can take place. For if Lubitsch demonstrates he’s a master of the medium, it’s because of the stories he tells and how he tells them.   In the last act, Ossie and her guardian get tipsy. They smoke, drink champagne, and offer a toast to ‘brotherhood’; and then…. their lips lightly brush. ‘What’s your name,’ asks the guardian. ‘It’s better not to ask’, says Ossie. Then the lip-brushing becomes a more conscious, if still very light kiss. It’s not a deep French as they used to say in my home-town. They’ll then kiss some more and will continue to do so in the cab on the way home. The scenes are undeniably erotic, very subtly handled, with a frisson of the transgressive that is yet so light as to be mistaken for accidental whilst going slightly over the edge. In this way, even the more staid members of the audience can feel daring without having their hair stand on end. Nicola Lubitsch, Lubitsch’s daughter, has called this film Victor/Victoria fifty years before Victor/Victoria but it is so much better than the Blake Edwards film (I’m aware of the 1930s German version but have not yet seen it). I Don’t Want to be a Man is less coy, more complex, more human than Blake’s film. For one, Ossie likes being kissed, is clearly heterosexual, but is enjoying her transgressions which to her simply amount to kissing and which give her a kind of power, in that she gets the upper hand over her guardian. Equally interestingly, the guardian knows he’s kissing a man and in the cab it becomes clear that he is not at all embarrassed by it, likes it, and does it again. One can so easily detect how this film was an influence on Dietrich and Von Sternberg in Morocco, not only sartorially, in that Dietrich is wearing a sleeker version of the top hat, white tie and tails that Ossie wears here, but in the labile view of sexuality, one with a ‘twist’ in that Ossie doesn’t like the girls as much as Dietrich does whereas the guardian likes the boys a lot more than Gary Cooper.

The guardian, femmed-up.
The guardian, femmed-up.

At the end, they wake up in each others’ beds, he with a feminine lace cap on. She has to trudge home through the streets of Berlin (and these are clearly shot on location). When he discovers that it was his guardian he had been kissing and asks her if this was so, Ossie retorts in the intertitle, ‘That’s right. The one and only!’ ‘And you let yourself be kissed by me’, ‘Well, didn’t you like how it tasted?’. The film ends with her turning the tables on him ‘I’ll bring you down yet…Down to here’, she says pointing to the floor just as he had done at the beginning.   As the end, they kiss, and she tells us ‘I wouldn’t like to be a man’. But we’re left with the impression that she actually had a really good time impersonating one. She got to do the drinking, smoking and carousing that she’d been forbidden in the beginning of the film. She sure seemed to enjoy having a man’s freedom and his agency, even if it was exhausting stuff. Plus she got her man in the end and put him in his place whilst doing so. Extraordinary stuff.

In a men's suit...but with very feminine heels.
In a men’s suit…but with very feminine heels.

Watching the last third, I wondered what audiences who saw it might have made of it; how exciting it must have been to women and to the lgtb members of the audience, however such identities might have been constructed then, lucky enough to see this; and what it might have meant to them. I’d like to learn more about that. What I do know now, almost a hundred years later, is that the film enchants and dazzles with its technique, its joy, its appreciation of freedom and its expansive notion of humanity and its foibles. And on top of that there’s the brilliant exuberance of Ossie. ossie oswaldaAlice A. Kuzniar, writing in The Queer German Cinema on I Don’t Want to be a Man and on Der Geiger von Florenz writes that ‘the “gender trouble” of these films does not reside solely in their depiction of independent, strong-willed women and their rejection of patriarchal authority. Both films deeply unsettle sexual as well as gender divisions in a way inconceivable for even independent gay cinema as well as mainstream straight cinema today’. i I’ve not yet seen Der Geiger von Florenz but that is definitely the case in relation to I Don’t Want to be a Man and but one of very many reasons to see it.     i. Alice A. Kuzniar, The Queer German Cinema, Stanford: Standford University Press, 2000, p. 33.         José Arroyo

Shoe Salon Pinkus/ Schuhpalast Pinkus (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1916)

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Screen Shot 2014-05-01 at 19.35.00Ernst Lubitsch plays Sally Pinkus, a middle-class schoolboy, fun-loving, mischievous, disrespectful of his teachers, smoking behind his father’s back and already ogling the opposite sex — even if it means climbing a slippery pole in the schoolyard to do it. His father berates him for flirting with the maid but then does exactly the same once Sally’s out of sight. Sally is expelled from school, buys a treat for a girl he fancies and as a result has all her girlfriends chasing him for ice-cream too, all of which he very much likes but can’t afford. Very Lubitsch. Indeed according to Karsten Witte, ‘Sally Pinkus: that’s Lubitsch in the years 1915, 16, 17’.[i]

Screen Shot 2014-05-01 at 19.36.11Sally fails High School and doesn’t receive a diploma. That his only good grade was for singing is narrated into a lovely punch-line in the film. Luckily for him and to the relief of his family, there are some jobs where qualifications are poo-poohed: he finds a work  in a down-market shoe-shop. But he can’t bring himself to put shoes on customers with holes in their socks. On the bright side, he does fancy the boss’s daughter. The combination of weariness towards work and over-eagerness to flirt gets Sally fired. Again, he doesn’t remain unemployed long; he’s got the smarts to get another job, this time at an even posher shoe shop.

Sally doesn’t know where to draw the line, always slightly exceeding the limits of the appropriate. He loses his job when he can’t stop himself from tickling the foot of a pretty woman in spite of her obvious annoyance, thus losing the wage and getting nowhere with the girl. However, he wins it back by having the smarts to sell a woman shoes when no one else can: he simply changes the larger size the woman’s feet require to the smaller one her vanity desires. Again very Lubitsch.

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If the milieu of the story had been set a little lower in the social scale, the story might have seemed archetypally picaresque. Except that Sally not only has wit and smarts, he also has drive. It’s perhaps this that leads Scott Eyman to compare him to Sammy Glick, after the heartless, ruthless and cruel hero of Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? and call Sally Pinkus a German Duddy Kravitz[ii], after the eponymous hero of Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

The first comparison is simply inappropriate as, aside from a drive to succeed, Sally and Sammy share few traits: Sally is fundamentally kind and good. Moreover, though Sally does undergo an apprenticeship –and Lubitsch played many types of apprentices at this point of his career; apprenticeship was almost a characteristic of his star persona during this period — for Sally, power and money are not ends in themselves like they are for Duddy. What makes Sally run is a desire for the opposite sex, a desire that women exploit. There are a lovely couple of scenes where Sally’s shown making all the female employees laugh at his jokes. He clearly loves being surrounded by women and they in turn like him, at lest up to a point. Then, one of the girls who he’s been courting and who he sees holding hands with another man, is shown mocking his desire for her to the rest of the girls as he looks on, distraught. Sally has a vulnerability lacking in Sammy Glick and one that Duddy only acquires near the end of his story, after he’s served his own moral apprenticeship. For Sally money’s just a means. He wants a girl; and he wants more than sex from her.

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 20.35.09One of the pleasures of watching this film, now almost a hundred years old, is that it offers an insight into a way of life and conditions of living now no longer ours. Who can now imagine a shoe shop with all those employees, each with their own gigantic locker in the basement? I suppose all old films tell us something about the time in which they were set, in a way, to a degree, up to a point; all of which require a set of knowledges and a method of decipherment. In Shoe Salon Pinkus we seem to see and understand with a greater degree of transparency and with an enormous amount of enjoyment.

 

The film also has elements that seem current and continue to resonate. For example, when Sally is loaned 30,000 marks to start his own shoe shop by the  dancer he fancies, he goes to his boss and blows smoke in his face, just like in If I Had a Million when Charles Laughton wins the lottery, and after crossing door, after door, after door to get to the puffed up person at the top of the heap,  he blows his boss a raspberry. Sally models his shoe shop on what were then the most fashionable and palatial temples of consumption, the Department Store, and calls it a ‘Shoe Palace’. He then gets the dancer to wear his shoes onstage so he can publicise where they can be bought. This mix of advertising, show business and consumption seem very contemporary. It’s the beginnings of an age of consumption in the society of the spectacle that we see in this film. Its energy is the propulsion of modernity itself.

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 20.37.26The film ends with a long fashion show where Sally can show off his shoes and the audience can admire them. The clothes the various models wear down the runaway are also displayed as spectacle. When Sally’s shoes are singled out for praise in a review of the fashion show, the success of his shop is assured, just as if it had been the opening of a play. Shoe Salon Pinkus was probably shown in a movie palace. Both are settings for dreams and aspirations. This one is funny, sexy, infused with Jewish humour but driven by all that was then considered to be modern.

According to Kristin Thompson, ‘Jan-Christopher Horak has argued that from Schupalast Pinkus on, Lubitsch’s films move from slapstick to satire’.[iii] I’m not in a position to argue with him not having seen his earlier films. However, it is fair to say that there’s not a lot of slapstick in this film. The humour comes from situation and point-of-view. Certainly, Lubitsch himself, in what Scott Eyman has called ‘the archetypal Lubitsch performance’ performs[iv] broadly, excessively so to contemporary tastes. But there are no slaps, no sticks, no pratfalls. And there is certainly some satire, at least of what Lubitsch imagines women find attractive.

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 20.36.41In Sabine Hake’s marvellous book on Lubitsch, Passions and Deceptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch[v], she suggests that movie spectators, cinema’s ‘customers’, are positioned to respond like the women in Lubitsch’s fashion show in this film: ‘Both address themselves especially to women: as the quintessential modern consumers, the foremost experts in question of style, and as that group in society that is most open to, and most in need of, the play with other identities.’ I think that’s right. But I also think Sally Pinkus’ desire is worth noting. In the film, Sally’s desires are the subject of the film, women are what he desires, his desires might be those of most in the audience, the consumption of clothes and shoes is perhaps most directly addressed at women. However, when Lubitsch closes in on the shoes, he also gets the models to lift their dresses and show their ankles. Both men and women have a lot to look at, appreciate and desire in this film.

José Arroyo

 

Note: Shoe Salon Pinkus is an extra in  the Criterion blu-ray of To Be Or Not to Be and it would be worth getting just to be able to see  it in a wonderful clear transfer, unlike the image grabs from an inferior version that illustrate this review.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] ‘Sally Pinkus: c’est là Lubitsch dans les années 1915-1916-1917.’ Translation my own. Cited in Hans Helmut Prinzler in ‘Eléments pour une biographie’ ‘Erns Lubtisch’ Cahiers du cinema/ Cinémathèque Française, ed. By Bernard Eisenschitz and Jean Narboni, 1985.

 

 

[ii] Scott Eyman, Laughter in Paradise, Baltimore; John Hopkins Paperback Editions, 2000, p. 46.

[iii] Kristin Thompson, Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood: German and American Film After World War 1 Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005, p. 21.

[iv] Eyman, op cit., p. 45.

 

[v] Sabine Hake’s, Passions and Deceptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch, Princeton: Princeton University Press 1992, p. 35.

Max Reinhardt and Lubitsch

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Was Max Reinhardt an influence on Lubitsh? Lotte Eisner thought so. In the The Haunted Screen she tells us that Lubitsch was ‘less sensitive to his influence than other German filmmakers’ (p.79) but also notes the Reinhardt influence in ‘the famous square market place around which Lubitsch was so fond of moving his crowds in Madame Dubarry, Sumurum and Anna Boleyn. In each of these instances, the imitation of Reinhardt effects is of an almost documentary fidelity’ (p. 76).

It is hard for us now to imagine the significance of Max Reinhardt: he was simply the most celebrated man of the theatre of his day, not only in Germany but internationally. Eisner writes that, ‘we should remember that Max Reindhart from 1907 to 1919 (when the revolution brought  Piscator and his Constructivist theatre to the fore), was a sort of ‘Kaiser’ of the Berlin theatre. He had become so important that in solid middle-class families everybody skipped the newspaper headlines to read Alfred Kerr’s article on the previous night’s performance. Berliners often went to the Reindhardt theatre several times a week, for the programme changed daily’ (p.47).

Morover, ‘the links between Max Reindhardt’s theatre and the German cinema were obvioius as early as 1913, when all the main actors — Wegener, Bassermann, Moissi, Theodor Loos, Winterstein, Veidt, Kraus, Jannings, to mention but a few — came from Reindhardt’s troupe (Eisner, p. 44). Though the second part of the title of Eisner’s book is often elided, it might be worth reminding ourselves  of it here: The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in German Cinema and The Influence of Max Reinhardt. Lubitsch was not an expressionist or at least not much of one (The Doll and other films do show traces). Indeed Tom Tykwer views his later move to Hollywood as a lucky escape from Expresssionism.  But Lubitsch did not avoid the influence of Reindhardt nor indeed did he want to. He had a lot to learn; and he learned quickly.

Max Reinhardt by Emil Orlik, Prague, 1985.
Max Reinhardt by Emil Orlik, Prague, 1985.

Reinhardt was born Max Goldmann on the 9th of September 1873, in Baden, near Vienna. He was the first of a family of six children. An actor since 1890, he directed his first production in 1900, Ibsen’s Love’s Comedy. He becomes director of the Deutsches Theatre and opened his school of acting there in 1905. In 1906 he bought the Deutsches Theater and opened the Kammerspiele next door. The first production there was Ibsen’s Ghosts.

The Theatre as Cathedral of Art
The Theatre as Cathedral of Art

According to J.L. Styan, from 1910-1912, Reinhardt became ‘known throughout Europe. It was Reindhardt’s privilege to put into practice some of the thinking of the “aesthetic drama’” movement which wanted to combine the art of space and light, of music, design and the spoken word, and of acting, mime and dance. His invention of the Regiebuch (on which more later) as a master promptbook was both a monument to his work – and a necessity if that work was to be carried out’. [i]From 1915-1918 he also becomes director of the Volksbühne in the Bülowplatz, Berlin, saving it from possible extinction during the war years. His first production there is Schiller’s The Robbers. Lubitsch became a Reinhardt actor in 1911, at the height of the director’s fame.

Lubitsch's contract with Reinhardt.
Lubitsch’s contract with Reinhardt.

Alfred G. Brooks tell us that Reinhardt’s ‘creative career had spanned the birth and demise, the rejection and acceptance, of the host of forms and movements which sought to provide new perspectives in the visual and performing arts during the first half of the Twentieth Century. Reindhardt influenced playwrights, critics, painters, designers, architects, composers, dancers, actors, directors, and managers. His basically eclectic nature led him to develop an enormous stylistic range which ranged from the studio to the circus, to palaces, vast outdoor arenas, garden theatres, opera houses, small baroque theatres, and cathedral square; all the world was for him a receptive home for theatre. During his lifetime, the vast range of his activities and his widespread influence made him a natural focal point for both admiration and vituperation. Critics and historians who sought neat descriptive labels either described him as a creator of spectacles or attacked him for lack of a clearly identifiable style’[ii].

Reinhardt stages Greek Tragedy in a Circus, 1911
Reinhardt stages Greek Tragedy in a Circus, 1911

Rudolf Kommer thought Reinhardt a magician of the stage: ‘To be called a magician and to be one are two very different things. If anyone in the realm of the stage deserves this title, however, it is Max Reindhardt of Baden, Vienna, Salzburg, Belin and the world at large’.[iii]Diana Cooper, daughter of the Duke of Rutland, a great beauty and a cornerstone in British cultural life from WW1 right to the 60s, performed in his production of The Miracle in England and the US and her biographer Phillip Ziegler tells us, ‘Diana knew little about Reinhardt, except that he was popularly reputed to be a genius and probably slightly mad… (he lived) in Salzburg (in the) baroque palace of Leopoldskron’.[iv] However, when The Miracle opened in New York , George Jean Nathan, arguably the most influential critic of the day, wrote in The American Mercury, ‘The theatre we have known becomes Lilliputian before such a phenomenon. The church itself becomes puny. No sermon has been sounded from any pulpit one-thousandth so eloquent as that which comes to life in this playhouse transformed into a vast cathedral, under the necromancy that is Reinhardt. For here are hope and pity, charity and compassion, humanity and radiance wrought into an immensely dramatic fibre hung dazzlingly for even a child to see. It is all as simple as the complex fashioned by genius is ever simple’.[v] A mad genius, living in a palace who directed epic theatre on a mass scale in huge theatres and with whom none could compare. That’s who Lubitsch got a contract with in 1911, when he was nineteen, to play small roles.

Faust at the Deutsches Theatre, 1911.
Faust at the Deutsches Theatre, 1911.

 

Lubitsch had always wanted to be an actor, he loved acting and as is everywhere evident in his films – see To Be Or Not to Be – he loved actors. But Lubitsch was not, as they used to say, exactly an oil painting, and his father tried to discourage him by grabbing his face and pointing it towards a mirror hoping that would bring him to his senses. His mother, who by all accounts ran the family business and the family, supported and encouraged her youngest child. With her help and that of Victor Arnold — a soulful comedian who worked for Reinhardt, gave Lubitsch free lessons and helped get him an audition — Lubitsch finally became a Reinhardt actor in 1911.

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Lubitsch was contracted to play small roles only. Bigger parts were given to stars such as Paul Wegener whom Lubitsch later gave leading roles to in his film. But his parents were delighted because, such was Reinhardt’s reputation, that a contract with Reinhardt, even in small roles, was a signal sign of success. In fact it was an honour so great that that many like Dietrich were late to claim it falsely. Reinhardt is a figure most great émigré directors to Hollywood from the German-speaking world (Preminger, Sirk, Siodmak) had some kind of connection to. With Reindhart, Lubitsch played a variety of roles, Launcelot in The Merchant of Venice, the Innkeeper in The Lower Depths. He appeared in the legendary staging of The Robbers and in some of the iconic theatres of his day, The Deutsche Theatre, the Kommerspiele, and later when Reindhart took it over in 1915, the Volksbühne Theatre, barely 200 metres from where he lived.

 

Reinhardt by E.S. Klempner, London, 1912.
Reinhardt by E.S. Klempner, London, 1912.

Lubitsch was lucky to work with Reinhardt for many reasons but foremost is that Reinhardt, who had started as an actor himself and who, according to Otto Preminger, ‘knew more about actors and about the nature of acting talent, than anybody in the history of the theatre’[vi], also revered actors. In ‘Of Actors’, Reinhardt writes, ‘‘It is to the actor and to no one else that the theatre belongs. When I say this, I do not mean, of course, the professional alone. I mean, first and foremost, the actor as poet. All the great dramatists have been and are to-day born actors, whether or not they have formally adopted this calling, and whatever success they may have had in it. I mean likewise the actor as director, stage-manager, musician, scene-designer, painter, and, certainly not least of all, the actor as spectator. For the contribution of the spectators is almost as important as that o the cast. The audience must take its part in the play if we are ever to see arise a true art of the theatre – the oldest, most powerful, and most immediate of the arts, combining the many in one’[vii] An interesting way of looking at actors but one which would be influential to Lubitsch, particularly in the perception that the audience too was an actor and played a role in the drama.

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Reinhardt was interested in all forms of popular entertainment, not only theatre but vaudeville, musical comedy, mime, and film. Every Reinhardt actor was potentially a film actor and according to Tom Tykwer, the theatre experience with Reindhardt proved a decisive one in shaping Lubitsch. One must not underestimate the extent of this for Lubitsch has historically been credited with developing not only the concepts of kammertheatre and Massentheater but, importantly in relation to Lubitsch, the concept of ‘Regietheatre’ which gave a centrality to the director. Reinhardt was famous for directing spectacles and crowds, skills that would prove handy for Lubitsch’s historical dramas, he revered actors like Lubitsch did but often gave them precise line readings like Lubitsch was to do, but perhaps most importantly is Reindhardt’s precise attention to all elements of mise-en-scène.

From Reinhardt's production of Sumurum which Lubitsch would later adapt to the screen
From Reinhardt’s production of Sumurum which Lubitsch would later adapt to the screen

As noted earlier, Reindardt kept a Regiebuch. According to J.L.Styan, the Regiebuch, was ‘a copy of the play interleaved with blank pages. It was a workshop in itself. Prepared in extraordinary detail, and corrected and modified over and over again, it became the indispensable blue print from which many assistants could conduct rehearsals while the master watched over the results. In it he would write down every movement and gesture, every expression and every tone of voice. Diagrams of the stage plan and even three-dimensional sketches of the scene and of its characters would be squeezed into available spaces. Over the years a production lasted, he never finished adding notes in this book, often with pencils and links of different colours’[viii].

Reinhardt's promptbook for Hofmannsthal's Everyman (Jedermann), Hollywood, Jan. 25-Feb 7, 1940
Reinhardt’s promptbook for Hofmannsthal’s Everyman (Jedermann), Hollywood, Jan. 25-Feb 7, 1940

Lubitsch started making films in 1913. He never once performed in a starring role on stage for Reinhardt but continued working for the Reinhardt ensemble in small parts until May 1918. Could there be better training for a director in the making than to be working for ‘the first theatre man in the world’ who worked in a way so interestingly transferable to cinema? ix

compare Reinhardt's Regiebuch to Michael Mann's densely annotated script for Heat.
Compare Reinhardt’s Regiebuch to Michael Mann’s densely annotated script for Heat.

 

José Arroyo

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[i] J.L. Styan, Max Reinhardt, Directors in Perspective Series, Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1982, p. xv

[ii]Alfred G. Brooks, ‘Foreword’, Max Reindhardt 1873-1973: A Centennial Fetschrift, Edited by George E. Wellwarth and Alfred G. Brooks, Archive/Binghampton, New York, 1973, p. i.

[iii] Rudolf Kommer, ‘The Magician of Leopoldskron’ in Max Reindhardt and His Theatre’ ed. by Oliver M. Sayler, trans from the German by Mariele S. Dudernatsch and others, New York/London: Benjamin Blom, 1968. First published in 1924. P.1

 

[iv] Philip Ziegler, Diana Cooper: The Extraordinary Life of the Raffish Legend who Charmed and Inspired a Society Through Two World Wars London: Hamish Hamilton, 1981, pp. 128-130.

[v] Cited in Max Reindhardt and His Theatre’, op cit., p. ix.

[vi] Otto Preminer, ‘Otto Preminger: An Interview’ Max Reindhardt 1873-1973: A Centennial Fetschrift, op cit, p.11

[vii] Max Reindhar, ‘Of Actors’ in Max Reindhardt 1873-1973: A Centennial Fetschrift, op cit., p.1.

[viii] J.L. Styan, Max Reinhardt, op. cit., p. 120.

[ix] Sylvia Jukes Morris, Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Booth Luce New York: Random House, 1997 p. 110

Additional Bibliography

 

Lotte Eisner, The Haunted Screen, Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Marx Reinhardt, London: Thames and Hudson, 1965.

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

Lubitsch in Berlin Part I: Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood (Robert Fischer, Germany, 2006) Masters of Cinema Series

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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.

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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.

 

Tom Tykwer next to a statue of Lubitsch
Tom Tykwer next to a statue of Lubitsch

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.

Did the Berlin Lubitsch suspect the Hollywood career that awaited him? Ali Hubert draws out the prospect.
Did the Berlin Lubitsch suspect the Hollywood career that awaited him? Ali Hubert draws out the prospect.

 

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.

 ****

Lubitsch's daughter Nicola kissing a statue of her father.
Lubitsch’s daughter Nicola kissing a statue of her father.

 

 

José Arroyo

 

 

Life After Pi (Directed and Edited by Scott Leberecht, 2013)

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On the 12th of February 2013, Variety ran a headline: ‘Rhythm and Hues bankruptcy reveals vfx biz crisis’. Life After Pi documents how how this came to be; how one of the most successful and stable vfx company, one that been running successfully for twenty-five years, intelligently managed and mobile enough to take advantage of every tax break, went bankrupt.

Screen Shot 2014-05-04 at 09.42.16Globalisation had had an effect on the personal lives of vfx worker. Many former employees of Rhythm and Hue here talk about the impossibility of having homes and families when workers have to move from city to city or country to country as film financing chases tax incentives and tax breaks. Workers also consider themselves artist and companies find it easy to exploit the fact that they love what they do: living in hotel rooms and working hundred-hour weeks near the end of production are shown to be common. But unsocial working conditions are not what led to bankruptcy.

Screen Shot 2014-05-04 at 08.59.03The problem is the business model. Unlike live-action shooting which is paid for by the hour, vfx are paid by the job; if they’re hired to do 500 shots, that’s what they get paid for and that’s what they’ve got to provide. It’s a fixed price for the job. Except that the job itself is not fixed. What happens is that directors sometimes change their mind about what’s to be in the shot, they want the rain moving left or right, and the VFX company has to absorb the cost. In live action, for example, because money is time and the clock is ticking, it would be a major crisis if, after having shot for a week, the director comes in and says, I don’t like the set, strike it and build me another one. But that is exactly what vfx people are routinely asked to do. They have to scrap the work done, start a new job, and absorb the costs of that change themselves. Hollywood is still run on an oligopolistic model. The players might have changed but not as much as we might think. It’s now Sony rather than MGM but still figuring Paramount, Disney, Universal, Warner Brothers, Twentieth Century Fox. The rules of the game are still set by the majors. And the game is fixed: VFX companies and their workers always lose.

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All of this came to a head during the academy awards in 2013. There were 500 people outside protesting a business model that invariably led vfx companies to go bust. Rhythm and Hues, having just filed for bankruptcy, was nominated for Academy Awards for Life of Pi and Snow White and the Huntsman. Pi won. But Bill Westenhofer, who went up to collect the award, was prevented from finishing his speech after only 45 seconds by the Jaws music being played louder than he could speak. His colleagues refer to it in the film as being sharked or being jaws-ed off the stage. To add insult to injury, neither Claudio Miranda, the Director of Photography for Pi nor Ang Lee, the film’s director, thanked the VFX people when they collected their award. ‘75% of that movie is our work. Without us there is no work’, says an irate VFX worker.

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Life after Pi demonstrates how this galvanized protest. Supporters on Twitter and on Facebook changed their profile picture to a green square demonstrating how, without their contributions as artists, colourists, designers, much of most movies would be just that. A green screen.

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A very illuminating look at what goes into the making of a film today, how films gets made and the crucial importance of vfx within this particular mode of filmmaking. You can see it on You Tube here:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lcB9u-9mVE#t=1761

José Arroyo

The Double (Richard Ayoade, UK, 2014)

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A really smart and ambitious take on Dostoyevsky’s The Double that doesn’t quite ‘play.’ In the film, the present is imagined as a dark 19th-century world with 1930s appliances where everyone is lonely, the self is divided, alienation is the norm and suicide is the only way out. Jesse Eisenberg plays two versions of a character and impresses with each. That it doesn’t quite ‘play’ is not as bad as it sounds. Many great movies don’t: La règle du jeu, The Magnificent Ambersons, many others; and if Ayoade’s film is nowhere near that level, it still makes for a fascinating watch. The Double is beautiful to look at, all noir-and-amber lighting, characters in frames within frames, boxed in, and with the camera often zooming out so that their imprisonment becomes complete. Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska are mesmeric and I loved seeing Cathy Moriarty again. After Submarine and The Double, Richard Ayoade is no longer a director of promise but one of achievement.

 

José Arroyo

Locke (Steven Knight, UK, 2014)

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A film that any aspiring filmmaker should see. You want to know how to make a fine film with only one actor in one set? See what Steven Knight and Tom Hardy do with Locke.

Ivan Locke is a construction manager wrapping up work for the day. Tomorrow will be the apotheosis of his career, the biggest cement pour outside of that undertaken by government or the military in history. He’s in his car on his way home. His wife is making sausages and wearing the team shirt. His kids are all excited about the big game that they’re all about to see. But he won’t be there. On his way home, he gets a phone call that will change his life. At the end of his car journey, he will have lost his wife, his home, his job and his children. But he will have made sure the cement job gets done properly and he will have done the right thing. Plus, knowing Ivan Locke as we’ve come to know him on this journey, it’s hard to believe that he won’t return home tomorrow and win back all he’s lost.

The film is like a Hawkesian tale in which professionalism is indistinguishable from morality. Locke has to make sure the cement job gets done right and he also has to do the ‘right’ thing no matter what the cost to himself and those near him. He’s almost autistic in his attention to detail and he can’t lie. It’s an iconic role. If Hardy weren’t already a star, this role and his performance of it, would surely make him one. The character is bound to become iconic and a cultural reference point. Who wouldn’t want to be like Locke, slowly, methodically, systematically, humanely trying to answer everyone’s queries, solving everyone’s problems, being kind but truthful, trying to move resolve issues even as he knows that solving another’s problems is  a move forward for another and a step backward and into the unknown to himself. Hardy is very moving, the changing tonalities of his voice in that gentle Welsh tone he adapts a mini-masterpiece of emoting.

The film is in the tradition of those tour-de-force theatre pieces like Cocteau’s La voix humaine where a woman breaks up with a lover over the telephone and the whole play is one long monologue. Except here it’s a man talking, sometimes to his absent father, about what it is to be a man. And you do get to hear other voices at the end of the line, all wanting something. This is a tour-de-force performance for Hardy, who gets to act out practically every emotion going whist in the service of a character who must remain calm, stoic, methodical. Because, it’s a one-character piece in one set, the dialogue here also has to bear the brunt of exposition that in an ordinary film would be spread amongst other aspects of mise-en-scene. This is of course an opportunity for the director and cinematographer, how to make the visuals interesting and expressive whilst remaining locked in one car. They succeed. Haris Zambarloukos does a fabulous job with the cinematography. We get neon colours at night, reflections of reflections depending on Locke’s state of mind, frames within frames, sometimes one a direct image, the other but a shadowy reflection of one, the softening of fog, the sharpening of focus, multi-coloured indicators in the night. What starts off as a long journey into night ends up as a cantering journey into clarity, purposefulness, decisiveness. This is why the film is so pleasurable to watch. Locke is very moving, very fine. But it is perhaps also why it is no more than that. Hardy, however, is nothing less than great.

PS Brummies might note with pleasure that in the film, the construction site in which the cement pour is to take place was the construction site of what is now The Cube.

Addendum: In his recent How to Watch a Movie (London: Profile Books, 2015), David Thomson notes that Locke is  the film that established Tom Hardy as a major figure and that,  ‘No film I’ve seen in recent years is more eloquent on where we are now, and on how alone we feel. There is nothing left to do but watch and listen’ (p. 41).

 

 

José Arroyo

First Position (Bess Kargman, USA, 2011)

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I love documentaries on ballet. I like seeing the toil, the boredom, the grind of constant effort, the blistered feet, the pain, the process. I find it interesting that all of this is in the service of the unnatural, of getting one’s body to contort in ways it wasn’t designed to, and thus do things that we call ‘marvelous’ because they’re not natural, they’re not ordinary. I somehow find it moving that all these years of grinding out the practice, of sweat and hurt are mobilized into the creation of an ideal of beauty that is both precise and evanescent, that disappears the moment it’s achieved, so fleeting that if you blink you’ve missed it.

There’s something interesting too about the composition of the cast in these films. Ballet is international so ballet films always feature characters from different countries interacting with each other; yet the action or story tends to have particular settings, be it a ballet school in Paris or London, so these characters’ are often seen as adapting to the culture of their school or company.

This documentaries follows six young dancers of various ages as they prepare for the Youth America Grand Prix, a contest that could determine their future as dancers, thus the culture of home, of comfort and feeling, is usually placed in contrast with the culture of work and achievement. The stories I found most interesting were those of two mixed race siblings (mother Japanese, father Australian) whose mother is determined to have them realise her dream. The girl wants to be a dancer but does the boy? The mother has the potential to be the stage mother from hell but will she be?

The other story I found very moving was of Joan Sebastian Zamora, a 16 year old from Columbia training in NYC because Columbia has no ballet culture. He’s got a girlfriend. They eat with their legs stretched out in a semi-split, stretching each other’s legs as they do so and sometimes tapping endearments on each others’ toes with arched feet. His whole family’s well-being seems to be riding on his future as a dancer.

Lastly, there’s Michaela Deprince, a black girl from Sierra Leone adopted by a very loving and supportive white American couple. She saw her biological parents and teachers hacked to death before her eyes as a three-year old. She was almost not adopted because she had white skin blotches all over her neck. Seeing her, one senses a desperate striving to find in ballet the control and beauty not afforded by life. But ballet has historically not been very welcoming to black dancers. Will Michaela succeed? A lovely and moving film.

José Arroyo