Kino Arsenal dedicates a film series to the master of witty comedies – with a focus on his time in Hollywood
"Ninotchka" (USA 1939) with Greata Garbo as a Soviet functionary loyal to the line Photo: Filmmuseum Berlin/Deutsche Kinemathek
In the fall of 1913, director Carl Wilhelm made the film "The Company Marries." Premiered on January 23, 1914, it runs for two weeks in eight sold-out movie theaters. "A mischievous, satyrical and cheeky step into the sacred spaces of fashion …" reads the Lichtbild-Buhne. A burlesque film, a slapstick, born at the same time as American slapstick.
And with the 22-year-old Ernst Lubitsch, who plays his first leading role in it, the counterpart to Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin, who portrays the declasse Englishman, is opposite Lubitsch as the Jewish careerist from Berlin. Chaplin: brutal, ruthless, sentimental. Lubitsch: impudent, brazen, charming. Both antisocial. Both caricatures. Both triggers of an "affect of collective laughter," as Walter Benjamin called it.
Ssimcha Lubitsch, owner of the "Betriebswerkstatte fur Damenmantel", Schonhauser Allee 183, had put his 16-year-old son in front of the mirror. "Look at yourself! And you want to go to the theater? With me, you can earn money even with that lousy face." Reluctantly, Ernst began a commercial apprenticeship, but ended up in the theater two years later.
The comedian Victor Arnold got him an entree with Max Reinhardt. So he is on stage from August 1911. The Max Reinhardt ensemble is the first elite. However, the cinema steals the audience away from the Deutsches Theater. For Lubitsch, this was a reason to devote himself to film in 1913.
Retrospective on the 70th anniversary of Ernst Lubitsch’s death: until 31. January, Arsenal Cinema, Potsdamer Strasse 2, www.arsenal-berlin.de
He dances a furious dance: 37 films until the end of the war, mostly as scriptwriter, director and actor in one person. As a store boy, shoe salesman, confectioner and commissar, he makes a mockery of himself and thus takes the wind out of the sails of the anti-Semites, because the audience laughs their heads off and elevates him to the darling of the public.
Like Chaplin, Lubitsch does not want to limit himself to comedies. But while Chaplin’s melodrama "A Woman of Paris" was a belly-flop, Lubitsch celebrated one success after another – with costume films like "Madame Dubarry" (1919), "Sumurun" (1920), "Anna Boleyn" (1920), "The Pharaoh’s Wife" (1921). They are shot with enormous effort and high costs, but sold abroad they bring in double.
In between, comedies such as "The Oyster Princess," "Kohlhiesel’s Daughters" or "The Doll," a film that has the Catholic Church ringing up a storm. The American film magazine Variety puzzles over who this "Emil Subitch" is. Soon America is able to form a picture of him. At the end of 1922, he arrives in Hollywood.
Samson Raphaelson, who wrote screenplays for Lubitsch, remembered him as naive, simple, modest, free of suspicion and hypocrisy, a man who constantly forgot reading glasses, cigars and manuscripts. "He had no time for manners, but even Garbo smiled in his presence, and so did Sinclair Lewis and Thomas Mann." As a director, Lubitsch is exacting, economical, precise.
Everything vague and unformulated is banished from his films. His motto is: don’t make an impression with decorations, the viewer must be up to his neck in the facts – where facts are dice and playing cards to him. In addition, there is what is soon called the "Lubitsch touch," a mocking and prizing that knows no interface, something unnameable, light, but which is clearly felt. And doors!
The Production Code, also called the Hays Code after its initiator, had the "clean canvas" as its goal. Created under pressure from the Catholic Church, it was intended to protect against sexual, criminal, blasphemous and amoral depictions.
Lubitsch double-crosses the moralists by staging the function of doors. Since what happens behind them blooms all the more fantastically in the viewer’s imagination, he places them in the plot in such a way that the film becomes a directorial exchange with the audience. Lubitsch, the master of doors.
Jean Renoir said that Lubitsch invented modern Hollywood. But that honor belongs to Charlie Chaplin, who set new stylistic standards with "A Woman of Paris." However, Lubitsch takes it up and passes it on to directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, Frank Borzage, Billy Wilder. For him, too, the sound film represents a cinemathographic enrichment.
Not bound to any genre, he brings operettas and revues to the screen, dramas, comedies, agent films and thrillers. Pola Negri, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Jeanette MacDonald, Maurice Chevalier, John Barrymore, Gary Cooper, the great Hollywood stars and the innumerable starlets circle him in the hope of being offered a role or a roll. The clothing apprentice from Schonhauser Allee conquers the United States and many other countries.
The Berlin Jew is hated by the Nazis. His films were banned from theaters, and he himself was stripped of his German nationality. Lubitsch pays them back with his sharpest weapon: the Jewish joke. "To Be or Not To Be" (1942) is, as Peter Bogdanovich wrote, not only satire, but the hymn to the indomitable courage and humor of people in the face of adversity and causes what hits the Nazis the hardest: the audience’s laughter at their nullity and ridiculousness.
70 years ago, on November 30, 1947, Ernst Lubitsch – the thick black cigars! – dies at the age of 55 from a heart attack, preceded by one in 1945. He is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. Among the many mourners were his colleagues Billy Wilder and William Wyler. On his way back from the funeral, Wilder breaks the silence. "No more Lubitsch." "Worse," Wyler counters him, "no more Lubitsch films."
This text appears in taz.plan. More culture for Berlin and Brandenburg every Thursday in the print edition of taz.