A few years ago Bob Dylan released an album entitledRough and Rowdy Ways, a title that reminded me of Ernst Lubitsch. (Apologies—it’s the way my mind works.) To be specific, it reminded me of Ernst Lubitsch’s German comedies. Case in point: Die Bergkatze (The Wildcat).
The Wildcat isbasically a returnto the play- ful, phantasmagorical world of The Doll after Lubitsch’s first flings with the epic and with Pola Negri: Carmen and Madame Dubarry. In broad outline, The Wildcat is a comic opera withLubitsch’s rambunctious wit substituting for music. Pola Negri plays the daughter of the leader of mountain brigands. She falls in love with the captain of the regiment who has been charged with finding and arresting her father. The only thing missing is the music, a lack which will be remedied at the festival.
In physical style, it’s unlike anything else in Lubitsch’s career, a baroque confection closer to Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress than to a conventional German silent film. The décor by ErnstStern and MaxGronau issomething out of a German fairy tale. The set of Fort Tossenstein was built on location in the Bavarian Alps, around Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and both exteriors and interiors look as if they’re made out of cake icing. Many shots are framed by all manner of mattes to alter the image size: slashing diagonals, ovals, scalloped edges. At one point Lubitsch even masks the screen to the modern 1:85 dimension.
The overall effect is energetic as well as infectious. In a word, playful. At one point, the brigands storm the fort, but they hear an orchestra playing and are so overcome by the melody that they just have to stop and dance before the pillaging can begin. The plot culminates in the title character marrying one of the brigands, whereupon they are handcuffed together. (Lubitsch’s ambivalence about marriage was in place long before his own pair of flamboyantly failed attempts.)
It’s an exercise in riotous artifice, as much pure fun as anything in Lubitsch’s canon. Yet, the film failed financially in Germany and was never distributed in America. Which didn’t deter Lubitsch; as he wrote shortly before his death in 1947: “[T]his picture had more inventiveness and satirical pictorial wit than many of my other pictures … [but] I found the German audiences in no mood to accept a picture which satirized militarism and war.”
Because of the vagaries of film distribution, American critics and audiences were unaware of Lubitsch’s early efforts such as his Meyer comedies or The Wildcat, and judged him by his far more sober—and derivative—historical spectacles, thus giving them a distorted idea of his talents and making his later sexual roundelays seem like more of a radical shift than the evolutionary refinement they actually were.
The star of the picture is the legendary Pola Negri, born in 1897 as Barbara Apolonia Chałupec in a small town in Poland. Her father was a tinsmith, and she was the sole surviving child of three.
By 1911, Pola was dancing for the Imperial Ballet in Warsaw, but she contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a sanitarium in the Tatra mountains of Poland. She was there for three months and spent a good deal of time in the library, where she be- came enthralled with the work of the Italian poet Ada Negri. She promptly adopted the poet’s last name as her own.
Tuberculosis had weakened Negri’s lungs, so she had to switch to a less strenuous branch of show business. She began making films around 1914 and from the beginning projected the willful, fiery temperament that was an authentic component of her personality.
Her big break arrived when she played the part of a dancing girl in a Berlin revival of Max Reinhardt’s stage production of Sumurun, based on a story from The Arabian Nights. Also fea- tured in the production were Emil Jannings and Lubitsch. Negri disliked Jannings, whom she found pompous and without humor, but she and Lubitsch became close friends.
In 1918, she began to appear in bigger releases such as The Devil’s Pawn and Mania: The Story of a Cigarette Factory Worker. Both films survive and prove that Negri was already Negri: fierce, passionate, energetic, an actress who seized the screen with ease—a born movie star.
As for Lubitsch, he was already directing and appearing in raucous comedies as Meyer, an aggressive, invariably fumbling schlemiel. Lubitsch directing Negri was bound to happen, and the result was a group of costume epics that were hits in both Germany and America, which resulted in both star and director making the trek west.
They reunited at Paramount in 1924 to make the delicious Forbidden Paradise, in which Negri downshifted to the drily amused woman-in-con- trol mode that became a feature of later classic Lubitsch comedies such as To Be or Not to Be.
Negri remained a star at Paramount until sound landed and revealed her Polish accent, which audiences found unattractive. The restof her career was a catch-as-catch-can trek spent mostly in Europe until after World War II, when she landed in San Antonio, where she spent the rest of her life.
In silence, Pola Negri came across. She still does. As Jeanine Basinger writes in Silent Stars, Negri stands out because of her “strong sexuality, her fearless portrayals of passion, and her animal magnetism.” Basinger points out that, “In the silent era, glamour girls were usually one thing or another—good or bad. Stars were divided into those who scampered and those who simpered, the virgin or the whore …. Negri … is everything. She is scintillating and extremely attractive, with the implication that men are drawn to her not for her decadence or erotic posturing but for her impulsive, hearty sexuality, which they long to experience. She’s unafraid of sex, and makes it clear she wants it, too.”
Lubitsch was a hugely creative director in Germany but only became a legend after emigrating to America in 1922 and making movies distinguished by a hushed erotic charge: Lady Windermere’s Fan and Trouble in Paradise, among others. Still later there was the surpassing humanity of The Shop Around the Corner and Heaven Can Wait, where the smiles and murmurs are replaced by a full recognition of the risk and pain that accompany emotional commitment.
In every period of Lubitsch’s career, there are films that are miracles. A century later, it’s clear that the underlying miracle was Lubitsch himself.
Presented at A Day of Silents 2023 with live musical accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra