Lubitsch in Berlin: Fairy-Tales, Melodramas, and Sex Comedies Review

Ernst Lubitsch always had it. That eponymous touch of his, an impossible to fully define gift brimming with wit and sophistication that viewers can recognize immediately, wasn't born in Hollywood at all. It may have been honed to perfection there, and one could make a strong argument that Lubitsch's unique blend of cinema thrived most with the advent of talking pictures, but just watch Die Puppe (The Doll) and Die Austernprinzessin (The Oyster Princess), a pair of 1919 fairy tale comedies made in Berlin, to see a director already capable of mastering his art. A number of his later hallmarks can be found in these early works, which also have remarkable yet very different visual textures that surprise as much as they delight. Lubitsch wasn't even thirty when he made these or the other four silent pictures found in the Masters of Cinema Series' "Lubitsch in Berlin: Fairy-Tales, Melodramas and Sex Comedies" box set, but they still often feel like familiar, complementary parts of his career. Other films included, notably Sumurun and Anna Boleyn, stretch some of the notions of Lubitsch's interests and capabilities, and maybe disappoint in the process. Surprisingly, it was actually his epics that got Lubitsch international attention, including that of Hollywood, and it's still kind of intriguing to imagine that he was once considered somewhat of an heir to Griffith and DeMille rather than being applauded for his handling of comedic material.

For a short period earlier, even before he was directing casts of thousands in costume dramas, Lubitsch was an actor, first for the legendary Max Reinhardt on stage and eventually expanding to broadly comic roles on film as well. (His last screen performance can be seen in Sumurun, included in this set.) Virtually nothing in Lubitsch's performances hints at the delicacy he would exhibit as a filmmaker. Indeed, it's not unusual to find Lubitsch cited, perhaps unfairly, for his stereotypically Jewish characterizations - in both appearance and behavior - when he was starting out in the German film industry as an actor. From there, the shift to directing was clearly intentional, and Lubitsch's reasons and motivations for his acting style would seem to be of modest relevance in comparison. The Berliner worked steadily as a stage actor, film actor and film director, sometimes doing all three in a single day, during the mid-1910s. By 1917, Lubitsch left the theatre to focus exclusively on film. (That same year, he made The Merry Jail, a short feature that can be found as an extra on the Criterion Collection release of Trouble in Paradise and the earliest of his films available on DVD in an English-friendly edition.) Within a year, on Ich möchte kein Mann sein, the director's comedic sensibilities would nearly be in full bloom.

Lubitsch's Ich möchte kein Mann sein (I Don't Want to Be a Man) is a likable little picture from 1918 with a runtime of just 45 quick and comic minutes. The director's enduring interest in gender roles is already on display here, with the plot involving a mischievous young woman named Ossi (played by his first muse Ossi Oswalda) who envies some of the freedoms she perceives men as having. She's scolded for smoking and playing cards but thinks that everything would be different if she was male. With the help of some very eager tailors, Ossi (believably) dresses up like a man to attend a dance and spots her new, considerably older caretaker, Dr. Kersten. Lubitsch here demonstrates how fine of a line there can be between drunken male bonding and flirting. The two "men" hug, cuddle and kiss in the mouth. Especially strange is Kersten's reaction upon later realizing that Ossi and he had kissed. He's actually more embarrassed that he kissed a girl rather than a young man. Perhaps the customs were different then. Also notable is an earlier scene when Lubitsch mimics the dizzy waking up of a character after a rough, alcohol-heavy night by playfully moving the camera up and down.

Even more delightful, and possibly as cute of a silent as Lubitsch made, is Die Puppe (The Doll). Like Ich möchte kein Mann sein, the story here presents a female character who falls in love while masquerading as something she isn't (in this case a humanlike doll). It's hardly a complex portrayal of romance, but Lubitsch generally seemed to prefer cinematic circumstances over those steeped in real life anyway. Die Puppe is really more of a fairy tale, where everyone emerges for the better and the viewer is left with a fluttery little smile. The young man Lancelot, whose dying uncle's wish is to have his nephew marry, retreats into the company of some very well-fed monks who are running short on money and food. With a large dowry at stake, the monks quickly devise a plan to get Lancelot a lifelike doll to stand in as his bride. Why this group of celibate men would be familiar with where to get lifesize female dolls is anyone's guess. The cartoonish looking man who builds these dolls, aptly named Hilarius, has just the thing for Lancelot - a newly completed doll modeled after his own daughter Ossi. What neither know is that the cocky young assistant to Hilarius - a precursor to Pepi from The Shop Around the Corner - broke the arm of the doll and Lancelot's fake bride-to-be is the very real Ossi. Oswalda's performance here is even more pleasant than in Ich möchte. The brattiness is toned down and we get to see her eyes brighten up winningly as she demonstrates quite a nice smile.

Die Puppe finds Lubitsch in such comfortable territory. The way he begins the film is at once evocative of the imaginary kingdoms he'd later explore and, further, a deft way of claiming authorship. By showing himself building a miniature version of the set piece by piece before cutting to a larger twin model that, as we'll see, retains that same toylike look (complete with men dressed in horse costumes and kitchen utensils painted on the wall), Lubitsch is basically inviting the viewer to look at his creation. It's brilliant and, like the film, utterly charming. You can, if really hellbent on it, assign cynicism to Lubitsch's Hollywood films but it's a largely false endeavor. Lubitsch could be ever so wry without getting bogged down in it. He liked poking fun. With the exception of Angel, this was typically done absent any hint of consequence, and his films happily defy the jadedness of modern viewers while still teasing some benign level of cynicism. Die Puppe, making good on its promised "toy-chest" origin, shirks the cynical entirely. It is joyous and guilt-free without succumbing to an overdose of sentiment.

Meanwhile, Die Austernprinzessin (The Oyster Princess) may be Lubitsch at his wittiest. Where the pictures on disc one coast primarily on effervescence, Die Austernprinzessin is a more elegantly comedic experience. Again we have the delightfully impish Ossi Oswalda in a leading role, this time playing the title character. (Her absence in the final three films of the set may take some getting used to if watched in close succession.) After she insists on landing a husband, her father, an American named Quaker and identified as being the "Oyster King," arranges for Ossi to marry a prince, who turns out to be on a bit of a downturn that includes pickled herring every night for dinner. Lubitsch, always a fan of mistaken identity as a plot point, lets the prince's loyal servant Josef stumble his way to marrying Ossi. The director's fondness for slightly bizarre humor peeks through here also, with the quickie wedding held just below a window as the official leans out to perform the ceremony.

Many of Lubitsch's targets, needled so lightly that it's barely noticeable he seems to be laughing at rather than with them, will be familiar archetypes to those who've seen his later films. Chief among these is the pomp and circumstance of the boorish wealthy, exemplified here by antics like Quaker almost constantly being shown either sleeping or eating as his servants linger and Ossi's endless primping in preparation for her introduction to the "prince." Lubitsch often centered his films around people of a somewhat higher economic strata than his middle class upbringing, but he was clever enough to both portray these sorts as so comically buffoonish as to excuse their flaws and yet still harbor a bit of a feeling of superiority to them. On some level he seemed to be observing that wealth is wasted on the rich. There isn't an envy in Lubitsch's portrayal of the upper class but a glamorization of that lifestyle does seep in with little apology.

Something truly striking about Die Austernprinzessin is that the visuals show a major progression from the two previous films. Scenes like the Foxtrot Epidemic, the decision at the Dipsomaniac club to solve a problem by boxing and the drunken reverie of the prince's friends each passing out on a different park bench are all brilliant sequences, especially for a filmmaker not always recognized for his visual humor. It's not just that these little interludes work nicely as diversions either. They are frequently complex, surrealist escapades that conjure up the same feelings experienced during the best of Busby Berkeley's musical numbers, only shorter and far less elaborate (though nonetheless funnier). Another exceptionally cinematic digression occurs when Josef passes the time while waiting for Ossi by stepping with the pattern of the floor. Lubitsch cuts between Ossi getting ready for what she believes to be her big introduction to a prince and Josef humorously making himself comfortable, eventually at a frenetic pace.

By contrast, the 1920 Sumurun, inspired by the stage pantomime The Arabian Nights, finds Lubitsch moving too far from his strengths and the result is a picture that holds little of the delightfulness we enjoy most from the director. It's also lacking the sheer fun of a typical Lubitsch film. At its height, and probably inclusive of at least a dozen movies, the Lubitsch filmography grants first-time viewers a cinematic high hardly rivaled by any other director's work. His movies are flat-out joyful to watch, a pleasure to ingest. Sumurun is instead stodgy and melodramatic, highlighted mostly by the opportunity to see Lubitsch on screen as a grotesquely pitiful hunchback minstrel. It's a generally comedic performance that wouldn't seem to have been too demanding but the surprise is how effectively Lubitsch - as director and actor both - wrings out so much pathos during one scene in particular. Otherwise, the film belongs to actress Pola Negri and gives Der Golem star Paul Wegener an excuse to be stiffly menacing as a sheikh. Even the short essay on Sumurun written by David Cairns and included with this release can only muster up faint praise, concluding that the picture is "restless experimentation" by a director trying to break away from convention. But after the delightful inventiveness of Die Austernprinzessin, this feels almost anything but adventurous.

Anna Boleyn, from 1920, settles for a more tonally consistent experience. Despite resembling little of what most would expect from a Lubitsch picture, it shows the director could balance an intimate story of betrayal against the ambitious backdrop of an historical epic. Emil Jannings plays Henry VIII and Henny Porten is the title character. Jannings' monarch seems to form the dominant impression left by the film, easily bringing to mind the contrast of his performance against that of Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII thirteen years later. Compared to Jannings, Porten can't compete and it's almost unfair that the film is named after her character considering how showy and complex her counterpart's role is. A forceful and downbeat ending stands out as Lubitsch practicing his lack of sentiment. But even though he handles the material quite well, there's still a feeling that this isn't what we want to see from Lubitsch, that his films tend more often to be the necessary alternative to epic dourness in cinema.

As evidence of that, consider the silent psychedelia of the director's use of mattes in Die Bergkatze (known in English as The Mountain-Lion or The Wildcat). Circles, ovals, CinemaScope-esque rectangles, and even more inventive shapes frame the action in Lubitsch's 1921 film. This is the picture that truly feels like audacious experimentation on his part. It also unleashes Pola Negri amid the snow and mountains of Bavaria. She plays the semi-feral daughter of a bandit leader who crosses paths with a handsome lieutenant (Paul Heidemann) on his way to a reassignment. Lubitsch is particularly wicked in his satirizing of the military in the film. They are depicted as arrogant, incompetent, and exceedingly irresponsible. Memorably, a scene early on shows the lieutenant leaving for his new post while a few dozen children enthusiastically scream out "Daddy!" as he bids them a farewell. A bag of mice is needed to scurry the onlookers away so that he can get moving. Further highlights include a chase culminating in a grin of a pole swing and musically inclined snowmen serenading Negri and Heidemann. Die Bergkatze is a spectacle in the best way, and after wading through Sumurun and Anna Boleyn, it feels like fresh air to find a Lubitsch picture that's once again fun. (Even if it might take a second viewing to catch everything while looking through all of those crazy mattes!)

The Discs

A sturdy box houses the six discs and individual thinpak cases that make up this Masters of Cinema Series release. Ich möchte kein Mann sein and Die Puppe share a disc while the feature-length documentary Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin occupies disc six. The set is region-free and PAL. All discs are dual-layered with the exception of Die Austernprinzessin. Aspect ratios are at or around the original 1.37:1. Die Bergkatze seems to be windowboxed, with thick black bars around all four sides.

The films underwent significant restoration by the F.W. Murnau Foundation, resulting in previously released DVD sets in Germany and from Kino in the United States. At least one advantage the MoC box has to the earlier versions is that it includes Die Puppe and the Lubitsch documentary, which were made available by Kino on a separate disc after its set was released. MoC has also fittingly opted to use German intertitles and optional English subtitles rather than take Kino's route of only offering English intertitles. And whereas the Kino NTSC transfers were unconverted from PAL masters, MoC's release is both sourced from and presented in PAL. For perspective buyers who don't yet own these Lubitsch silents, the Masters of Cinema set would seem to clearly be the one to get, though none of the discs are available separately while Kino does offer that option.

It's stating the obvious, but these movies were all made around ninety years ago and, considering the amount of Lubitsch's work presumed lost, it's no small feat that they've survived at all. That said, they all really do look absolutely fine. Mild damage, mostly vertical lines, remains. Ich möchte appears the softest but still reveals adequate detail. The black and white image does seem overly bright. Die Puppe and Sumurun are both tinted various colors. The former looks quite good and sharp while Sumurun is a bit softer and darker. Die Austernprinzessin has a flat-out marvelous level of detail and sharpness. Contrast, too, is impressive. By far, this is the best looking film in the set. Anna Boleyn is tinted sepia, which tends to brighten the image a little and allow for slightly more detail. Contrast is modestly strong. The final picture, Die Bergkatze, seems a tad soft but otherwise gives little reason to complain. Also, you might see some typically very mild combing, likely a result of silent frame rates being at a different speed than what later became standard.

Recently recorded scores, including an exclusive concertina for Die Puppe, make up the audio for these silent films. The Dolby Digital mono tracks come through as clearly as one would expect, with no issues. English subtitles of the German intertitles are white in color and optional.

The aforementioned Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin, a 2006 documentary by Robert Fischer that runs 110 minutes, occupies the sixth disc of the set. You couldn't ask for a more appropriate extra feature. It includes interviews with members of Lubitsch's family, as well as several German scholars and directors like Tom Tykwer and Wolfgang Becker. No single film is focused on too heavily but several, including some not on this set like Madame DuBarry and The Eyes of the Mummy, are discussed. Fans of the director are unlikely to be disappointed. Those less familiar with Lubitsch might find it a touch overlong, but I greatly enjoyed it. Discussion of Lubitsch on English-friendly DVD releases is distressingly meager so this is a welcome addition.

Speaking of that, no other special features have been included by MoC aside from liner notes inside the transparent thinpak cases for each of the films. This is not unlike the approach taken by the Criterion Collection's Eclipse line of releases. Having no real booklet to pore over is disappointing, and puts this box a notch below the lofty standards MoC has established with its other sets. The feature-length documentary is welcomed and the essays are all nice additions, but I wanted there to be even more.

Final Thoughts

There are probably four different periods of Ernst Lubitsch's career in film. The most known would be his time in Hollywood doing talking pictures. Prior to that he had worked on silents for American studios and much earlier it was as an actor that Lubitsch first reached German audiences. Most of the silent films are still difficult to track down, but what has emerged, both in the last few years and now in a seemingly definitive package from Eureka's Masters of Cinema series, is an instructive peek at the master's work behind the camera while in Berlin. These movies, all made before Lubitsch was even thirty years old, show an artist still finding his way at times but nonetheless already in total command of the type of film with which he would make his mark in Hollywood. It's an often enthralling adventure to go on, and the best of these pictures (Die Puppe, Die Austernprinzessin, and Die Bergkatze) stand easily with the best of his American output. Any fan (or prospective fan) of the director or silent cinema is urged to take a chance on this set.

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