December 2017, arsenal cinema

Ernst Lubitsch Retrospective


Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947) was a master of wittily directed comedies, which bear his unmistakable hallmark and whose popularity and acclaim remain undimmed to this day. A playful sense of levity, subtle innuendo, eloquent ellipses, dialogue accentuated via sarcasm, irony, concision, and exact timing are characteristic of the proverbial "Lubitsch Touch". Ernst Lubitsch began working as an accountant in his parents' Berlin confectionary company, before he joined Max Reinhardt’s ensemble at the Deutsches Theater as a 19-year-old acting student. In 1913, he was able to take on his first film roles, which were followed one year later by his first works as a director. Between 1914 and 1918, Lubitsch directed numerous one- to three-acters, primarily comedies with a propensity for coarse humor, in which he also appeared as an actor. In 1918, Lubitsch began directing more lavish, feature length films. His first large-scale historical film "Madame Dubarry" and the two comedies "Die Austernprinzessin" and DIE PUPPE, which marked his transition from comedy to satire, brought Lubitsch truefame in 1919. In the year that followed, he frequently moved between genres, with chamber dramas following film epics, and folk plays following melodramas and comedies. As one of the outstanding European filmmakers of his era, Lubitsch went to Hollywood in 1923, where he was able to continue working successfully without a break. He made use of the invention of sound film for inventive film operettas and musicals as well as to perfect his society comedies, with which he, if one believes the quote attributed to Jean Renoir, established modern American cinema. His sophisticated comedies shaped the style of the comedy as a genre of genuine quality, which connected the discriminating with the popular. The recurring themes of the films were the illusion and the reality of high society, love triangles, and the conventions of bourgeois partnership models. Due to the virtuosity of his directing, the subtle art of leaving things out, and the many ideas communicated indirectly, Lubitsch's frivolous allusions and veiled sexual crudities were passed by the censors without comment, even after the Hays Code came into force in 1934. Arsenal is showing 20 films from Lubitsch's comprehensive oeuvre until the end of January, with a focus on the comedies he made in Hollywood.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE (USA 1932, 15.12., with an introduction by Hanns Zischler & 29.12.) Conman Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) poses as a baron to gain entry to respectable society and robs the rich Monsieur Filiba (Edward Everett Horton) in Venice. It’s only the “countess” who sees through him, who Gaston falls in love with and is actually a pickpocket named Lily (Miriam Hopkins). As a couple, they plan to rob the safe of wealthy young widow Mariette Colet (Kay Francis) in Paris. After finding her valuable handbag, Gaston wins Madame’s trust and becomes her private secretary, eventually getting closer to Mariette than Lily would care for. The perfect economy of how the different stylistic means of cinema are employed has made TROUBLE IN PARADISE one of the most frequently referenced films in the whole of film history. This comedy thriller revolves around money, jewelry, love, and sex as well as its two winning protagonists, who spare not a single thought on how they might be able to earn money legally, and was counted by Lubitsch himself as being among his best films: "As far as pure style is concerned, I don’t think I’ve made anything better than TROUBLE IN PARADISE and nothing that is as good." We are showing a new 35mm print of the version restored by UCLA and the Film Foundation in 2017.

DIE PUPPE (Germany 1919, 20.12., with a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins) Baron de Chanterelle is worried that his family line is going to die out and wants to marry off his nephew Lancelot as quickly as possible. He assembles all the virgins from the surrounding area to this end, whereupon on the shy nephew, who shows no interest in women, flees into a monastery. The monks suggest to Lancelot that if he doesn’t want a woman, he could marry a doll made by brilliant mechanic Hilarius and even speculate that they might be able to pocket 300,000 francs in dowry. Fantastic stage sets made from paper and papier mâché, childlike costumes (carriages with people in horse costumes), and ideas taken to risqué extremes (lustful monks) characterize Lubitsch’s shift from comedy to satire. The director regarded this "comedy from of a matchbox" – which was its tagline – as one of his best German works: "Even today, I see this film as one of the most inventive I’ve ever made." (E.L., 1947)

THE LOVE PARADE (USA 1929, 16. & 30.12.) Count Alfred Renard (Maurice Chevalier) leads a relaxed life in Paris as the military attaché of the Kingdom of Sylvania. In order that the country’s moral reputation remains untarnished, he is fired from the diplomatic services and ordered to return home following numerous complaints from husbands whose wives have fallen victim to his charms. The members of the cabinet urge the young, still unmarried Queen Luise (Jeanette MacDonald) to mete out a harsh punishment to Alfred. Luise summons him before her - and demands that from now on, he prove his abilities in the royal palace. With his first sound film, Ernst Lubitsch established the genre of the sound film operetta and created its dream couple in the form of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, who made her big screen debut here.

MONTE CARLO (USA 1930, 18.12. & 2.1.) Free-spirited countess Vera von Conti (Jeanette MacDonald) jilts her bridegroom Prince Otto at the alter and flees from the marriage on a train to Monte Carlo, where she gambles away the last of her money in the casino and arouses the attention of the attractive, well-situated Count Rudolph Fallière (Jack Bucha-nan). As Vera is not to be impressed by wealth and nobility, Rudolph gets close to her as her hairdresser. Ernst Lubitsch’s second sound film, a romantic comedy with musical passages, is a variation on the successful THE LOVE PARADE. As Maurice Chevalier had other film commitments at the time, Lubitsch cast Jack Buchanan as the partner of Jeanette MacDonald.

THE MERRY WIDOW (USA 1934, 16. & 30.12.) It’s 1885 in the tiny fictitious southern European kingdom of Marshovia and the head of state is concerned by news that rich widow Sonia (Jeanette MacDonald) is taking a trip to Paris: if the attractive young woman, who is the biggest taxpayer in the country, supplying a full 52% of its taxes, falls in love in Paris and leaves the country for good, Marshovia will face bankruptcy. Guardsman Danilo (Maurice Chevalier), who seems particularly suited to being the queen’s lover, is sent to Paris on a secret mission to win Sonia’s heart and bring her back home to her country. The plan is that the ambassador (Edward Everett Horton) is supposed to bore Sonia at a soiree arranged at Maxim’s to such an extent that Danilo’s appearance will feel like salvation. In his last, most lavish, and, together with THE LOVE PARADE, best musical, Lubitsch brought together his preferred operetta couple Chevalier-MacDonald for a third and final time.

DESIGN FOR LIVING (USA 1933, 19. & 29.12.) Friends and impoverished artists George (Gary Cooper) and Tom (Fredric March) get to know advertising draughtswoman Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) on a train and fall in love with her. To prevent their friendship suffering as a result and given that Gilda reciprocates the feelings of both, they all decide to move in together in her bohemian apartment in Paris – without having sex. When the idea doesn’t go according to plan, Gilda rescues herself from all the emotional chaos and flees into a marriage with her father’s friend and boss Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton) – until Tom and George free her from her marriage to the pedantic business man and return to the only life model conceivable for them: a ménage a trois. With elegance, intelligence, and stylistic brilliance, Lubitsch presents a solution that would be unimaginable in Hollywood just a year later following the enforcement of the Hays Code.

DESIRE (Frank Borzage, USA 1936, 21.12. & 27.1.) Elegant jewel thief Madeleine de Beaupré (Marlene Dietrich) steals a 2-million-franc pearl necklace in Paris that she wants to bring to her accomplice in San Sebastían. To smuggle the necklace over the French-Spanish border, she manages to slide it into the jacket pocket of naïve vacationer Tom Bradley (Gary Cooper), who helps her when her car breaks down. When she attempts to get the necklace back, getting closer to him ends up being part and parcel of the process. DESIRE was Marlene Dietrich’s first film following her separation from Josef von Sternberg and Ernst Lubitsch’s last involvement in a romantic comedy thriller: he was involved in developing the script and functioned as a producer and artistic director of this film directed by Frank Borzage.

ANGEL (USA 1937, 17. & 27.12.) A variation on Lubitsch’s preferred theme, a love triangle between two men and a woman, this time tinged with melodrama: diplomat Sir Frederick Barker (Herbert Marshall) seems to find the problems of the League of Nations more important than the current state of his wife Maria (Marlene Dietrich), who is warming up her relationship to a previous lover in a Paris hotel room. At a reception, Frederick meets his old friend Tony (Melvyn Douglas) again, who saved his life during the war, and they both discover that they had the same lover in Paris: “Angel”. Their reunion is supposed to be celebrated at a joint dinner with Maria.

NINOTCHKA (USA 1939, 22. & 25.12.) Soviet comrades Buljanoff, Iranoff und Kopalski (German emigres Felix Bressart, Sig Rumann, and Alexander Granach) are supposed to buy the jewels in Paris that used to belong to Grand Duchess Swana before the revolution. But Count Léon d’Algaut (Melvyn Douglas) makes sure that the comrades enjoy life in a Paris luxury hotel to such an extent that their mission stalls. Commissar Razinini (Bela Lugosi) is forced to send functionary Ninotchka (Greta Garbo), who is still loyal to the party line, on a special mission to Paris in order to take care of things. The posters which MGM used to publicize the film announced "Garbo laughs!", which was regarded as an inappropriate sentiment by audiences on its release just a few weeks after the pact between Hitler and Stalin and the start of the Second World War and only evolved into one of Lubitsch’s most popular films after the war.

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (USA 1940, 23. & 26.12.) Budapest, in the mid 1930s, Christmas time. In the gallantry and leather goods shop Matuschek and Company, the mood is tense: there’s money missing in the cash register, company head Matuschek suspects his best salesman Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) of having a relationship with his wife, and Kralik and new staff member Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) are getting annoyed with each other – unaware that they have exchanged ideas with one another about the beauty of literature in a series of romantic letters. Their first planned rendezvous fails to take place after Matuschek makes the two employees work overtime, but then on Christmas Eve, the time is finally right for a happy ending. In terms of its human touch, Lubitsch regarded this moving, melancholy comedy about loneliness as his most outstanding film: “As far as human comedies are concerned, I was probably never as good as I was with SHOP AROUND THE CORNER. I haven’t made another film whose atmosphere and characters were more true to life”.

THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING (USA 1941, 28.12.) Larry Baker (Melvyn Douglas) is a successful insurance broker in New York, and Jill (Merle Oberon) is the doting wife at his side, always sure to support him as he rises through the ranks. The two of them have been peacefully married for six years now and are seen as the happiest couple on Park Avenue, until a series of mysterious hiccupping attacks take Jill to a psychoanalyst, in whose waiting room she meets eccentric musician Alexander Sebastian (Burgess Meredith), for whom she develops a growing interest. This satire on the rules of the game for marital partnerships was shot on a small budget and is a remake of Lubitsch’s lost silent film "Kiss Me Again" from 1925. (hjf)

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