Urbane Legends

The Importance of Being Ernst

Lubitsch specialized in satiric social comedies and lavish historical romances. Well before he turned 30, he was Germany's most celebrated director. At once sophisticated and vulgar in his taste for orientalism and theatrical bric-a-brac, Lubitsch was a cannier, less pretentious, and more cosmopolitan entertainer than his peers Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau—closer in his showbiz sensibility to the Hollywood moguls. ("Bourgeois, Jewish, nouveau riche to the tip of his fat cigar," in Raymond Durgnat's phrase.) In 1922, America's aging sweetheart Mary Pickford hired Lubitsch to direct her next picture. The first of the European émigrés to establish himself in the American movie colony, he adapted brilliantly: "I prefer Paris, Paramount, to Paris, France."

In America, Lubitsch invented his trademark "touch," while creating several successful cycles. The five "continental" comedies he made for Warner Bros. between 1924 and 1926 inspired widespread imitation while putting the hitherto minor studio on the map. (Lubitsch briefly served as Warners' head of production, acquiring the rights to The Jazz Singer before leaving.) Working for Paramount in the early sound era, Lubitsch produced another influential cycle of racy operettas, mainly starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier. Paramount's production head in the late '30s, Lubitsch remains best known for his late series of plot-driven comedies Ninotchka (co-written by his disciple Wilder), The Shop Around the Corner, and To Be or Not to Be. Set in Europe and released during World War II, all three have proved resilient enough to be remade and recycled to the present day.

Lubitsch's early career, however, remains insufficiently known. In addition to his German satires, his Warner Bros. silents are a unique synthesis of Euro couth and American slapstick. The good-natured and hilarious So This Is Paris (1926) could lay claim to being Hollywood's quintessential Roaring Twenties comedy—a good-natured send-up of sheikhs, jazz babies, and would-be wife swappers, replete with binge drinking, outrageous Freudian symbolism, and a writhing kaleidoscope that must be the ultimate Charleston scene. Because it's a Lubitsch film, it's all about fantasy, pretense, and misplaced identity. An American wife dons a masquerade mask to retrieve her husband from some drunken bacchanal. When she maneuvers him to the couch and removes her mask, he's nonplussed: "What do you mean by coming in at this hour?"

Sweet smell of excess: Hopkins and Marshall in Trouble in Paradise
photo: Film Forum/Photofest
Sweet smell of excess: Hopkins and Marshall in Trouble in Paradise


Trouble in Paradise
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Written by Samson Raphaelson and Grover Jones, from the play by László Aladár
June 13 through 19, at Film Forum

The Lubitsch Touch
June 13 through July 3, at Film Forum

The Nazi Officer's Wife
Directed by Liz Garbus
Written by Jack Youngelson
Seventh Art
Opens June 13, at the Pioneer

Were it not so scarifyingly real, the premise of Liz Garbus's documentary The Nazi Officer's Wife might well have appealed to Lubitsch in its romantic deceptions and delusions. Remaining in Nazified Vienna because of a love affair, Edith Hahn, a law student and assimilated Jew, loses her family and gives up her identity. Helped by a Nazi bureaucrat, she uses a gentile friend's papers and submerges herself in the wartime Reich as a so-called U-boat. Life goes on, albeit in mortal fear of exposure. Working as a nurse in Munich, Edith is wooed by a handsome Aryan. The ironies multiply once he's drafted and she becomes pregnant—now the ideal German woman.

The Nazi Officer's Wife is a powerful account of living in isolation and constant terror; interviewed at length, Hahn (lucid and handsome in her mid eighties) emerges as a passionate, intelligent, and amazingly fortunate woman. Made for A&E, the documentary betrays its TV origins largely in its busy orchestral cues, its station-break structure, and the redundancy of Susan Sarandon's dramatic voice-over narration.

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