Combustible Celluloid

Lubitsch in Berlin (1919-1921)

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Lubitsch in Berlin on DVD

These days, Ernst Lubitsch rarely gets the recognition he deserves. Perhaps this is because he died over a half century ago, while other old master filmmakers continued to make films into the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. More likely it's because he specialized in comedy, a form for which many scholars have no use. But Lubitsch showed not only a distinctive style to rival Hitchcock's or Welles' but also an innate feel for the cinema. He understood the rhythms of the form, and knew exactly how to use them. In his day, the "Lubitsch Touch" was a catchphrase as easy to apply as it was impossible to describe.

Like his contemporaries F.W. Murnau, Edgar G. Ulmer and Fritz Lang, Lubitsch left Germany for the glitz of Hollywood, though he left long before the Third Reich had gained power. He did so at the behest of Mary Pickford, who expressed her desire to make a film with him. (The result, Rosita, from 1923, displeased both of them.) But although Lubitsch's Hollywood films have been more or less available to see for the past decade or so, his German films have been all but inaccessible. (Peter Bogdanovich tells a story in his book Who the Devil Made It about being at the Berlin Film Festival in 1977 and getting to see nine of these early films in one single 13-hour stretch -- the only time the projection room was available.)

Now, Kino Video has outdone themselves by releasing five of these classics on four DVDs, available separately or in a set -- although sadly their collection does not include the great Madame DuBarry (1919).

The first disc contains two shorter features, the 60-minute The Oyster Princess (1919) and the 45-minute I Don't Want to Be a Man (1919). In the first, the spoiled daughter of the "oyster king" announces that she wants to marry a prince, so her father makes arrangements for this to happen. But when the prince sends his right-hand man to visit the girl, and she mistakes him for the prince. In the second, a tomboy, tired of being treated like a girl, dresses up in a tuxedo and goes out for a night on the town to find out what a boy's life is like. These creaky plots leave a lot to be desired, but Lubitsch's touch goes a long way in smoothing them out and making them palatable.

The more serious Sumurun (1920) actually turned up in a U.S. release (under the title One Arabian Knight). The great Polish star Pola Negri plays the title character, a gypsy singer that captures the unwanted amorous attention of a powerful sheikh (played by Paul Wegener, better known for his film The Golem, made the same year). Lubitsch himself plays a hunchback in love with her. This oddly clunky film features very little of Lubitsch's personality, and his performance (in a strangely Lon Chaney-type role) leaves a bit to be desired. According to the book Ernst Lubitsch by Scott Eyman, the film was cut by four reels before it played in theaters.

Anna Boleyn (1920) features a great cast, especially Emil Jannings, but it's an atypical Lubitsch production, a 118-minute historical epic that owes a great deal to Griffith.

The Wildcat (1921) is another matter entirely; it's a masterpiece that ranks with Lubitsch's greatest work. In it, a young lieutenant, a relentless lover of many women, travels to a new assignment at a remote fort. On the way, bandits descend upon him and the daughter of the bandit leader (Negri again) falls madly for him. Unfortunately, the captain's daughter also has fallen for him. Lubitsch's unique style and timing snapped securely into place with this film, and his presence is unmistakable. The opening scenes alone, with a group of soldiers roused from bed for duty, shows an uncanny feel for onscreen space, rhythm and cutting. Lubitsch also deliberately spoofs Griffith with his hilarious use of frame masking. Rather than using a circle or a couple of lines to block out the frame and direct attention to one spot, he uses globs, stars, zigzags and other weird shapes.

DVD Details: Kino's four DVD set comes with amazingly good transfers of these difficult-to-see films, but, unsurprisingly, there are no extras. The discs thoughtfully provide a Lubitsch filmography, but it's actually missing a chunk of films from the late 1930s and 1940s. Note: in 2007, Kino released The Doll and the full-length documentary Lubitsch in Berlin and then packaged all five discs into a box set.

Starring: Pola Negri, Emil Jannings, Paul Wegener, Ernst Lubitsch, etc.
Written by: Ernst Lubitsch, Hanns Kräly, Norbert Falk
Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 400 minutes
Date: December 2, 2006

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