Ernst Lubitsch / Germany / 1919 / 113 mins
For every classic of silent cinema, there are hundreds no more watchable than a ‘What the Butler Saw’ machine – fragments; ideas of cinema that rarely form a satisfying whole. They’re there to be studied, but is the value of cinema its artistry, or its power to entertain? Eureka have enlivened this debate with a run of releases that blur the boundary between art and populism. Madame DuBarry, Ernst Lubitsch’s biopic of the French courtesan, is the latest and most potent example.
Released in 1919, the film seems far removed from the austerity of its German homeland and the psychodrama of the then emerging Expressionism. It looks more like a Victorian greetings card than a Gothic woodcut. Brush away the surface fluff, however, and there is much of interest, particularly in its gender politics.
This is a story of revolution, where Dubarry (silent icon, Pola Negri) causes armed revolt thanks to the spell she casts over the King of France (Emil Jannings). This influence is more than political – Dubarry’s presence ‘feminises’ the King, as shown in a scene where he helps his lover with her make-up. Just as political power is conflated with sex, so too is political idealism. Jealous of her sexual freedom, a former lover of Dubarry’s rouses the masses against the aristocracy and the course of history soon runs bloody.
Lubitsch directs heavy themes with a light touch and his stars follow suit, skilfully alternating between subtlety and comic overplaying. In many ways, Negri and Jannings were the first true film actors, and their efforts send the two hours flying by.
This is a film that can be admired, but also enjoyed, and not just as a charming curio of a distant age. Perhaps not a classic, but at the very least an accessible place to start – or further – any exploration of the silent era.