Ernst Lubitsch

Carole Lombard gets a star entrance in To Be Or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1942)

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The opening scene of To Be or Not to Be has to be one of the best in all of classic cinema. The very first line, ‘Lubinski, Kubinski, Lominski, Razanski and Poznanski’ already set a tone for the film. The names are almost inherently funny in themselves. Perhaps a bit of a cheap joke but note the spacing, the intonation, and the variation between the first three and the last two. From the first five words we know we’re in a comedy, a high one, satirical and elegant but not afraid to go low-down and below the belt.

These are jokes being designed by masters. And they keep coming: Hitler is a vegetarian but ‘he doesn’t always stick to his diet. Sometimes he swallows whole countries.’ The film’s setting and all of the film’s themes are set-up in this elegant, polished, harmonious opening, beautifully calibrated so that each each bit shines on its own whilst also providing a sparkling setting and springboard for all the film will have to offer later.

We’re introduced to the theme of performance, the love of theatre, how drama can save lives. Indeed from the very beginning what we see is not what we think it is. What we thought was ‘life’ in the movie was really theatre whilst later the theatre will be a setting in which performing will save lives. Thus the title of the film is not just that of the famous soliloquy in Hamlet, or a joke making it the cue for an assignation. It is the essence of the film itself: what is the relationship between being and performing? Is performing not being? What are the connections between appearances and being. How and when do we perform and is that which we perform ourselves? And how is that performance tied to appearances. To what extent can that which merely appears to be real pass for reality?

The scene has many lovely elements that will recur and be riffed on by the rest of the film: the recurrent repetition of ‘Heil Hitler’ three times as a standard which then, by accentuating pauses, accents or irregular repetition, can transform something banal into something funny; the joke about Hitler being named after a piece of cheese will also recur in various guises; the ‘Heil myself joke’ rhymes nicely with the command to ‘Jump!’ near the end; the mechanics of how one is brought from the theatrical piece which we think is the film to the film proper through the director slamming his fist and yelling ‘that’s not in the script!’ is marvellously self-reflexive, as Lubitsch’s opening scenes so often are; and of course the great ‘I wound’t sneeze at a laugh’ line in a film in which the getting of laughs is simultaneously that most essential and that most desired so that all its perfect flourishes seem absolutely necessary.

The opening scene is so delightful one firstly enjoys it as if comedy is always this easy and fine. But the more one thinks about it, the more one is awed by the mere mechanics of the piece, how beautifully it’s designed not only as an opening scene but as the seeds from which everything else in the film unfurls, not to speak of the beauty of its realisation and the genius of its performances.

There is really too much to say about it and here I want to focus your attention in the clip below, on only on the four shots in the sequence, where we are introduced to Lombard and Benny as  Maria and Joseph Toura: She the great star, he the great actor. Note how in just over a minute we’re told that this is a serious drama about atrocity, that it will have terrific laughs, that real film artists will clown around. We’re also  given the whole dynamic of the couple’s relationship –the love, the art, the jealousy, the competitiveness, the grounds for infidelity — whilst also making a great joke out of a dress that will prove so important to a later encounter with Nazis if not concentration camps.

Note how in the first shot, Lombard heads towards the camera through a swastika, surrounded by Nazis as the director, says ‘this is a serious play, a realistic drama’ , then the interruption about the dress before ‘it is a document of Nazi Ger..’ Note the wonderful double take and that line, which must have been so shocking once: ‘is that what you’re going to wear in the concentration camp?’ Then a cut to a medium shot in which the dress Toura dreams of for her scene  — ‘Imagine me being flogged in the darkness, the audience screams, suddenly the lights go on and the audience discovers  me  in this beautiful dress’ highlights every curve of Lombard’s body. There’s a sense in which so accentuating a dress and so feverish reading of lines complement each other.  But that they contradict anything to do with concentration camps is part of why it’s so daringly funny.

The staging is undramatically inventive as well. See how Dobash gets between star and director  with the line about getting a terrific laugh, only to be replaced then by the husband when the director says ‘that an artist like you can be so inartistic’. It’s beatifully staged, including the moment where she begins to walk and the camera moves with her leaving him out of the shot. Then when the camera inserts his reply, he joins her in a travelling shot through we get to see all the dynamics of the relationship played out: him accusing, her fracturing, him chasing, both talking through each variation and all in one brief movement. iIt’s brilliant and brilliantly economical on practically every level.

José Arroyo

Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1943)

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Heaven Can Wait has faults: Don Ameche’s relative lack of charisma, the hideous make-up on Gene Tierney in the scenes where she’s meant to be middle-aged, the garishness of the colour. But they’re relatively minor ones in this great, generous, kind-hearted, loving and forgiving film. Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) is naughty but nice and good. Upon his death, he heads to hell, where he believes he belongs. But as he goes over the events of his life with His Excellency (Laird Cregar), it’s suggested that in spite of all his naughtiness, a place upstairs might in fact be more suitable. The same roundelay of women whom he thinks has brought him to hell end up being what might bring him to heaven, or at least it’s waiting room: he was charming and generous to them all and left them with memories so sweet as to be akin to love. It’s a film without villains. What causes pain are desires one can’t control even when it means hurting others, though one tries to shield them from the pain one knows one’s causing. Parents love their children, grandparents are adoring and sometimes even like as well as love their grandchildren. Husbands and wives love each other though there are limits to be set, limits one tries to uphold but sometimes transgresses, which is where forgiveness comes in. People have called this Lubitsch’s ‘testament’ film, not as in the sense of a will but as a testament to his view of life, what he believed was important; and one can’t help but see it that way. It’s certainly a film full of humour, tenderness and wisdom. When I grow up I too, like Lubitsch, want see life in its fullness, including its frailties, its cruelties, and its horrors, but through a loving lens and with a chuckle.

The scene with Eugene Palette and Marjorie Main back in Mabel’s Manse in Kansas, spatting over the funnies, and speaking to each other only through their highly diplomatic butler, is a comic masterpiece. The scene included below, is more typical of the charm, cinematic inventiveness and comic ingeniousness of the film as a whole.

José Arroyo

The Merry Widow (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1934)

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The original Punch illustration for the film.
The original Punch illustration for the film.

The Merry Widow is a shallow masterpiece. Sonia (Jeanette MacDonald), the richest woman in Warshovia has been widowed, might be hooked by a foreigner and send the country’s economy into a tailspin. Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) gets caught by the King (George Barbier) making love to his wife and the Queen (Una Merkel) is so complimentary that he is chosen to be the one to woo and win The Merry Widow back to Marshovia. It’s a film full of delights; the magnifying glass over the map that introduces us to Marshovia (figure 1), the first meeting between Danilo and the Widow which begins by her reading the letter saying he’s terrific and ends with him following her to the palace and saying ‘I tried to bring a little moonlight into your life…..Forget me – if you can!…and Don’t include me, even in your dreams!’; The montage of black veils, shoes, corsets and dogs that signify her life and whose change in colour symbolises a decision to change that life; How the King discovers his wife is cheating on him — a scene that Billy Wilder used as an exercise with students at UCLA asking them how would they stage it and then showing how Lubitsch did it; the fabulous waltz sequence, with hundreds of dancers waltzing through a palatial hall of mirrors, a still from which illustrated countless early film books (see fig. 1); the charming prison sequence at the end; Sam Raphaelson’s witty dialogue. The film is  a delight, a joy, a mini-masterpiece of cinematic inventiveness. Barbier and Edward Everett Horton, as the Marshovian Ambassador to France, are particularly enchanting. It’s only of Lubitsch that one dares ask for more.

The film was based on Franz Léhar’s operetta and was remade by Curtis Bernhardt in 1952. I quite like the Bernhardt version with Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas but to see the two films side by side is to be convinced of Lubitsch’s genius. Both films were for MGM, the Lubitsch version, the most expensive film made to that point and, though a considerable hit, it still lost money.

Figure 1: The magnifying glass over Warshovia.
Figure 1: The magnifying glass over Warshovia.

N. T. Binh and Christian Viviani have called The Merry Widow the quintessential Lubitsch film (Lubitsch, T. &B Editores: Madrid 1991, 2005, p. 160). It contains the elements of spectacle evident in his early silent (from Carmen onwards), the operetta form of his early thirties musicals (e.g. The Smiling Lieutenant) — hugely popular then and unjustly marginalised in historical accounts of the musical genre now — the rhythmic elements evident in all of his great works (note the dance number in the silent The Oyster Princess from as early as 1919), the use of doors, the indirect way of showing, the ingeniousness and comedy that infuses the whole film, the sophisticated comedy of manners of his greatest films (Trouble in Paradise), the great dialogue of most of his great talkies (Ninotchka), the controlled, precise, and poetic imagery of is late masterpieces (the letterbox sequence from The Shop Around The Corner say). One can’t help but agree. The Merry Widow might not be the best Lubitsch – it doesn’t quite touch our hearts – but it is the quintessential Lubitsch in that it delights the eye, the ear and the mind.

Figure 2: Classic imagery from celebrated waltz sequence.
Figure 2: Classic imagery from celebrated waltz sequence.

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.

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.

TheApprenticeshipOfDuddyKravitz

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

The Heat (Paul Feig, USA, 2013)

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Everyone is so happy to have a comedy that isn’t ugly, gross, adolescent, and stupid that they’re falling all over themselves to praise The Heat. Except The Heat is pretty ugly: do even comedies have to look like the side of a warship now? It’s also ugly in spirit: If Melissa McCarthy’s family in the film were Black or Hispanic instead of Irish, activists would rightly be up in arms; it’s one nasty stereotype of Boston Irish after another; and all put there to get you to laugh at their expense: aren’t they stupid, uneducated, vulgar, etc. etc. The film’s  also pretty gross; it’s all body humour — small nuts, things falling out of vaginas, etc. – except we’re supposed to praise Allah because it’s women being gross. As to adolescent, the film’s emotional moment is that Sandra Bullock was so unpopular in high school that only a teacher wrote on her year-book, so by the end, warm, ebullient, ‘down’ Melissa McCarthy writes something nice in it and claims her as a ‘sister’. But, you know, Sandra Bullock is old enough to be a grandmother several times over and she looks every year of it, face lifts or no. Isn’t she a bit old to still be worrying about, well the film says 1982, but there are doubters; and really, if at her time of life the only relationship in her life is her neighbour’s kitty…well I won’t go on. We can and do suspend disbelief.  The Heat is another of Bullock’s transformation narratives: she goes from being the kind of snarky, friendless, controlling person who’s always right to being soul-sister to Melissa McCarthy,  ‘earthy’ and ‘real’  but without having to get fat — neither the film nor Bullock is stupid. It’s a high-concept female buddy film that works; it does have plenty of belly laughs; and it does pass the Bedschel test with flying colours. Moreover, Bullock’s timing continues to be ace, Paul Feig times knows how to direct the gags, and Melissa McCarthy is the most joyous presence in American cinema today. It’s not a great comedy but  as a wise man once said, perhaps in Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, ‘oh, I wouldn’t sneeze at a laugh’. The Heat offers plenty of reasons not to sneeze.

José Arroyo

Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1933)

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A Lubitsch film adapted by the great Ben Hetch from the Noel Coward play about his relationship with the legendary Lunts*? The heart speeds, the mouth salivates. Yet, it’s extremely disappointing; indeed almost awful. Coward and Lubitsch are like oil and vinegar or rather two superb vinegars that might have got toxic when mixed by Hetch. The film tell of two artists, playwright Tom Chambers (Fredric March) and painter George Curtis (Gary Cooper), who love the same woman, like each other, and decide to share a flat. Miriam Hopkins is the ‘free spirit’ who makes a condition of their living together that she will critique their work but won’t sleep with either (probably everyone’s idea of hell).

Fredric March was a big star, but on the evidence of his work here, his appeal is lost in the mist of time. Miriam Hopkins is made for Lubitsch. She’s simply wondrous as the elegant crook in Trouble in Paradise and her Princess in The Smiling Lieutenant is a continuing delight (Her transformation from princess to flapper, culminating in her performance of  ‘Jazz Up Your Lingerie’, ciggie in one hand hand, garters visible, and visibly vibrating to post-ragtime jazz,  is priceless). She always exudes a slight harshness but here she doesn’t have enough funny lines to compensate. She seems merely harsh; and not as pretty as Gary Cooper.

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Orson Welles said Cooper was so beautiful he practically turned into a girl whenever he saw him; one look at Cooper here and one understands Welles completely – even Miriam eventually succumbs. He does some good double-takes too. But ultimately he’s unbelievable in the Coward role; whenever he’s discussing art you sense he’d really rather be on a horse. The first Lubtisch I’ve not liked. It is a pre-Code film and as daring as  American cinema would get for another thirty years; but not delightful.

*(Alfred and Lynn, considered the great acting couple of their day and so famous they even figure in J.D. Salinger’s The Cather in the Rye, ‘they didn’t act like people, and they didn’t act like actors’)

José Arroyo