Lubitsch in Berlin

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Intriguing silent movies from louche Berlin

Image of Lubitsch in Berlin

Ernst Lubitsch / Germany / 1918-21 / 580mins
Available on Blu-ray Now

Cinema wasn’t born in Hollywood. It was born in Berlin.  Germany has a hugely rich film history and German emigres (Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk, Billy Wilder) to LA helped create the cinema industry. The German film director with his johdpurs and whip became a recognisable stereotype.

Actor/director Ernst Lubitsch arrived in America in 1923 and went on to make such classics as To Be or Not to Be. His early work helped show Hollywood what was possible in the medium of the feature film. This collection of early silent shorts is an eye-opener. Filmed with a startling realism I Don’t Want to be a Man (1918) is a Cinderella fantasy telling of adult tomboy Ossi (Ossi Oswalda) who, constantly nagged by her father and governess, dresses in white tie and tails and discovers that being male is tougher than she thinks (the backslapping, the acrid cigars, the gassy beer). After a night on the lash she is escorted home by her betrothed who hasn’t figured out he is actually a she. The two men start smooching in a taxi. It must have been deliciously daring at the time. It’s pretty daring now.

In the 1920s Berlin had a particularly louche and morally-freewheeling nightlife. And these movies catch something of that milieu. Another film (there are six on this disc) worth mentioning is Sumarun (1920) an ambitious story of gypsies, tramps and sheiks. Although German camera and lighting equipment was superior the cameras remain pretty static; a drawback that is more than compensated by the ever-moving cast, elaborate sets, location work and colour washes – yellow for heat-of-the-day exteriors, red for the sultry seraglio. The pantomime story is a bit of a tangle but essentially tells of gypsy dancer (the vamp Pola Negri who also transferred to Hollywood and became one of the great stars of the silent age) who has a dark khol-rimmed eye for any man around. Here she looks a tad like Desperately Seeking Susan-vintage Madonna.

Negri’s thick accent meant her American career was over thanks to the talkies but she lived to 102. Lubitsch became successful in Hollywood and directed the great Garbo in Ninotchka and the classic The Shop Around the Corner. But these high definition restored transfers of early journeyman works from his beginnings in Berlin are quite fascinating.