Although somewhat forgotten today, Pola Negri was one of the great divas of the silent screen. The first European to be given star treatment in Hollywood, she brought a flavor of animal magnetism to American films, which, combined with her widely publicized love affairs with Valentino and Chaplin, made her a popular subject for fan magazines. Whether appearing as good women or vamps, she played her roles to the hilt, often challenging the old sexual double standard. MOMA’s series includes the New York premiere of Mariusz Kotowski’s doc Life Is a Dream in Cinema: Pola Negri and four of the actress’s silent features. Negri became Germany’s top film star through pictures directed by Ernst Lubitsch. In his Madame DuBarry (1919), released in the U.S. as Passion, she’s the notorious mistress of Louis XV amid the social turmoil that climaxes in the French Revolution. In Lubitsch’s Die Bergkatze (1921), an entertaining mix of anti-militarist satire and romantic comedy, she’s the wildcat daughter of a mountain brigand.
The huge success of Passion in the U.S. led to a contract with Paramount, where she made A Woman of the World (1925), directed by Mal St. Clair: She’s stunning as a European countess on a visit to a small Midwestern town whose public smoking and exotic dress put her at odds with the crusading district attorney. After he orders her to leave town, she horsewhips him. (He seems to enjoy it—they’re clearly made for each other.) In Hotel Imperial (1927), a WWI-set story of love and espionage, Negri was directed by Mauritz Stiller, Greta Garbo’s mentor. With the advent of sound, she worked in Germany again, then returned to Hollywood for a couple of supporting roles, but it was Stiller’s beautifully directed film that contains her last role of substance.