German director Ernst Lubitsch is best remembered for his sleek, insinuating American comedies of the 1920s and ’30s. In those films, he demonstrates his “Lubitsch Touch,” that lighter-than-a-soufflé comedy style that remains fresh even 80 years later. But the Lubitsch who made his fame in Germany began as a baggy-pants comic whose character was crass and obvious. Even after he began directing features, his comedies, though they showed glimmers of what was to come, lacked subtlety. It was not until he began directing historical epics that he showed his mastery of camera and spectacle, if not yet of story. He was the German DeMille, marshaling the proverbial casts of thousands amid lavish sets and costumes, within which he moved around his somewhat wooden protagonists. The last and grandest of his German epics, The Loves of Pharaoh, was influenced by Hollywood, financed by Hollywood, and eventually its creator was wooed away by Hollywood.
The German film industry had grown during World War I because foreign films were forbidden, and, after his first “serious” feature, The Eyes of the Mummy Ma (1918), a lurid potboiler starring Emil Jannings and Pola Negri, Lubitsch was fast becoming one of Germany’s most important filmmakers. After the war, German films were still successful at home but did not do well overseas because of residual anti-German sentiment. Filmmakers avoided German themes and sold films overseas as “European.” One of Lubitsch’s most popular films was the French-themed historical epic Madame Dubarry (1919), which became an international hit, opening in the U.S. to great acclaim in late 1920. The New York Times called it “one of the pre-eminent motion pictures of the cinematographic age,” and Variety proclaimed, “This is great direction,” while identifying the great director as “Emil Subitch.”
Around the same time, with inflation rampant in Germany and production budgets limited by the studio, Lubitsch and his producer Paul Davidson refused to renew their contracts with Universum-Film AG (Ufa). They instead signed up with the American company Famous Players-Lasky and its distribution partner Paramount, which was buying up European films for distribution stateside. Over the next few months, two other Lubitsch epics, Carmen (1918, retitled Gypsy Blood) and Anna Boleyn (1920, called Deception) opened in America. In April 1921, the Paramount group set up the European Film Alliance (EFA), opening studio facilities in Berlin. Lubitsch, with his own production company, was completely funded by EFA and began work on his first EFA production, The Loves of Pharaoh. This story of an Egyptian king who falls in love with a Greek slave girl was made at a time when interest in Egyptology was at an all-time high. The same year the film was released, Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen. But Egyptian exploration had been going on for many years, and Germans were at the forefront of it.
Also at this time, American films were again being shown in Germany, and Hollywood production methods had greatly advanced during the war years. Lighting was much more sophisticated than the flat lighting the Germans were still using. Lubitsch took note and created some dramatic effects with the American lamps at EFA’s Berlin studio. Large arc lights enabled him to shoot nighttime crowd scenes and he also used powerful backlighting to enhance drama. Unlike the usual glass-walled facilities, the EFA studio was the first in Germany with solid walls, so cinematography no longer relied on the sunlight.
With a bigger budget, Lubitsch could hire more extras and later proudly told reporters that he had used more than 100,000 of them for The Loves of Pharaoh. High unemployment meant that Lubitsch was able to find plenty of people, even though they had to travel about three hours outside of Berlin to the location and were paid a pittance. According to Scott Eyman’s biography of the director, Laughter in Paradise, “Lubitsch utilized current political animosities in directing the crowds. ‘Here you!’ he would scream, ‘run as though the Spartacists were turning machine guns on you!’ Another group would be told, ‘The price of bread has gone up. Over there is a rich baker’s shop. Go for him!’”
Critics compared Lubitsch’s handling of crowd scenes in The Loves of Pharaoh to Deutsches Theater director Max Reinhardt’s theatrical pageants. Lubitsch did not deny it, but he also cited influences such as Velazquez’s battlefield paintings and Mauritz Stiller’s Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919).
Just days after he finished editing The Loves of Pharaoh, Lubitsch set sail for America, carrying a print of the film. He arrived in New York on Christmas Eve 1921, gave press interviews, and attended film premieres and Broadway shows. The film was re-edited for American taste, giving it a happy ending, and the German title, Das Weib des Pharao, which translates as “The Pharaoh’s Wife,” was changed to The Loves of Pharaoh for the American release. Lubitsch had planned to travel to Hollywood for the film’s premiere there but cut his trip short, returning to Germany before the film even opened in New York on February 21, 1922. Apparently, three years after the war’s end, anti-German sentiment was still high. In an article entitled “German Director, Lubitsch, Regarded Unkindly, He Says,” Lubitsch told Variety that he had received harassing phone calls and letters and that Actor’s Equity had objected to his plans to work in Hollywood.
In spite of the hostile reception for the director, most of the American reviews for The Loves of Pharaoh were raves. “It is truly one of the exceptional works of the screen,” according to the New York Times. The Motion Picture World critic was giddy with superlatives: “A masterpiece of the spectacular—the gorgeousness, stupendousness and sheer artistry in direction baffle description.” When the film opened in Germany that March, the praise was more subdued. “German spirits, German handicraft, German art—maybe a little bit too much American style, and therefore we cannot praise it with the same enthusiasm as other works by Lubitsch,” wrote the Berliner Zeitung reviewer.
Pharaoh’s critical success could not save EFA, however. The German-American collaboration never turned a profit, and the company went bust in late 1922. Lubitsch made one more film in Germany, but runaway inflation—by early 1923, the German mark had sunk to 7,000 to the dollar—and the rumblings of political unrest made staying in Germany untenable for the director who was just coming into his own. Lubitsch accepted an offer from Mary Pickford and left Germany in 1922. Their collaboration on Rosita (1923) was difficult (Pickford and her associates mocked Lubitsch’s accent) and not entirely successful, but soon Lubitsch found his footing as one of the masters of American comedy.
Under contract to Paramount, he not only produced and directed his own films but became studio manager. Shortly before his death in 1947, he received an honorary Academy Award for “his 25-year contribution to motion pictures.” Reminiscing about his career in 1943, Lubitsch told columnist Hedda Hopper: “I have made better, more significant pictures than Rosita, but never one that I have loved more. Because with that I associate the finest thing that ever happened to me—the opportunity to come to America, to become a citizen. Beside that good fortune, all else pales.”
Presented at SFSFF 2012 with live music by Dennis James