The Importance of Being Ernst

Nick Pinkerton on the “The Lubitsch Touch” at Film Forum

Ernst Lubitsch, Ninotchka, 1939, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 110 minutes. Ninotchka and Count Leon d'Algout (Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas).

ERNST LUBITSCH WAS BORN in booming Berlin in January 1892 and died much too young in Hollywood, California, in 1947. He was a German Jew of age to have served in one World War and to have been a likely civilian casualty of a second, but by dint of luck and talent he avoided both. While living through the multiple ructions that rocked the European continent in the first half of the twentieth century and the wider world-historical earthquake of these years, he remained almost single-mindedly committed to producing wry, light, sparkling comedies that reflect the values of graciousness and grace. If Lubitsch had a political ethos, it might have been described by a musing which another of the funniest men who ever lived, Evelyn Waugh, gave to his creation Ambrose Silk: “It is a curious thing, he thought, that every creed promises a paradise that will be absolutely uninhabitable for anyone of civilized taste.”

The creeds in question were, on occasion, addressed in Lubitsch’s films, including two of his best known, playing at Film Forum’s retrospective “The Lubitsch Touch,” which takes its title from the trade paper name for the certain effervescent je ne sais quoi that the director—very much a brand name during his lifetime—brought to each of his films. Ninotchka (1939) stars Greta Garbo as an envoy from the worker’s paradise of the USSR who arrives in capitalist Paris only to be seduced by aristocratic swine Melvyn Douglas and the ready availability of frivolous hats in the city’s department store vitrines—the free market means better millinery, which is all the justification it needs to be deemed superior in Lubitsch’s eyes. In To Be or Not to Be (1942), a troupe of actors in occupied Warsaw, led by Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, use the tricks of their trade to infiltrate the high command of the occupying Nazis, a victory for play and imagination against brute force. As for Lubitsch’s post–Great War melodrama The Man I Killed (aka Broken Lullaby, 1932), it is significantly better than its reputation, but also the film in which Lubitsch seems least himself—there isn’t a chafed cuckold or a triple-entendre in sight.

After beginning his career in Europe, Lubitsch came to Hollywood to stay in 1922, though there he would mostly make films with European settings. Among the few notable exceptions are the sublime Heaven Can Wait (1943), set among the Manhattan upper crust who are the nearest thing that America offers to the idle gentry who were his favorite subjects. The ballrooms and bedchambers that Lubitsch was building on the Paramount lot represented a continent that bore little resemblance to the actual thing, even to the point of laying the scene of some of his films in made-up Mitteleuropean countries—Sylvania in The Love Parade (1929) and Marshovia in The Merry Widow (1934), both featuring the teaming of eye-rolling music-hall horndog Maurice Chevalier and demure soprano Jeanette MacDonald. In fact, even when Lubitsch was working in Germany, he displayed a tendency toward fairy-tale settings: The Oyster Princess (1919) takes place amid a fantasia of American largesse replete with a bivalve baron smoking torpedo-size cigars, while The Wild Cat (1921) features an Alpine fortress that looks to have been made of gingerbread. As a young buck, Lubitsch had become infatuated with Budapest, and until the end of his life he retained a taste for acquiring crude Hungarian source materials and polishing them to a high luster, as with The Shop Around the Corner (1940), based on a play by Miklós László, its actions limited to the leather goods shop run by Magyar merchant Mr. Matuschek—among other things, the film may claim to have created the template for the workplace sitcom.

Ernst Lubitsch, The Shop Around the Corner, 1940, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 99 minutes. Klara Novak and Alfred Kralik (Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart).

Those unaccustomed to seeing James Stewart express almost painful ardor may be surprised by the eruption of emotion that concludes that marvelous film, though Lubitsch had a knack for drawing the unexpected out of his actors—Garbo’s drunk act in Ninotchka, say, or the combination of suavity and pussycat contentment radiated by Don Ameche in Heaven Can Wait. And while Lubitsch’s late works access depths of feeling not found in his fleet farces, the constant throughout his films is sex. Lubitsch was an early innovator in the musical with The Love Parade, which was apt, for he imagines desire as a tune caught in your head—sometimes quite literally.

Sexual longing in Lubitsch is not a harassing, dry-mouthed ordeal; it is delicious, delectable—has any man ever been as delighted at the anguished conundrum of extramarital temptation as Chevalier is singing “Oh that Mitzi” in One Hour with You (1932)? Lubitsch was a connoisseur of the multicourse meal of seduction, and he gives scrupulous attention to the preparation of every dish, from the pleasure of waiting on a woman to be ready for an evening on the town to the surrender of a key with implicit evening visitation privileges to the final goodbye, almost invariably genial—“It was lovely while it lasted” reads the farewell note that Claudette Colbert writes to Chevalier in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), forced by circumstance to give up her man so that he can be with his own adopted social class. The premise was not an unusual one in films of the period—I recently watched, with pleasure, Lewis D. Collins’s Universal production Young Desire (1930), which revolves around a similar dilemma—but Lubitsch’s treatment was anything but the done thing. In the Collins film, the drama is only resolved by the woman’s suicide; in Lubitsch’s more amiable world, Colbert walks out on her own two feet, and not before getting together with her successor, played by Miriam Hopkins, singing a duet number called “Jazz Up Your Lingerie,” and essentially sitting the clueless gal down and teaching her how to fuck.

Though many of Lubitsch’s films—particularly the Chevalier musicals—are distinguished by a carefree boulevardier’s attitude toward affairs of the heart, Lubitsch was himself often unlucky in love, twice divorced, too monomaniacally fixated on his work to make much of a husband to anyone, and not precisely a dashing man to begin with: short, homely, and inclined to portliness. It was always remarked that he was impeccably dressed, however, as befitted the son of a prosperous men’s clothier, the milieu that he drew upon when making The Shop Around the Corner. Lubitsch’s father had hoped for the boy to follow him into the family business, but he became enamored of the theater instead, learning his craft by working as an actor under the legendary Max Reinhardt, whose heavily worked-through script annotations and attention to the minutest gestural detail he would imitate throughout his career.

Ernst Lubitsch, I Don’t Want to Be a Man, 1918, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 45 minutes. Ossi and Dr. Kersten (Ossi Oswalda and Kurt Götz).

In his earliest films, Lubitsch was often both director and star, playing variations on the role of Sally, a burlesque Jew and bustling little lecher seen to best advantage in Meyer from Berlin (1919), every bit excellent a showcase for his raucous talent as the same year’s I Don’t Want to Be a Man, which has Ossi Oswalda hitting Berlin in male drag to see how the other half lives. Lubitsch was a gifted farceur from the get-go, but it was as a director of historical spectacle that he became famous in America, thanks to the massive success of Anna Boleyn (1920), released in the States as Deception. Gay deceit would become Lubitsch’s stock in trade in time, with roundelay of infidelities The Marriage Circle (1924) introducing a blithe spirit into Hollywood pictures. Monogamy could be marvelous, of course, but lapses were to be expected and indulged—indeed, could even act as an agent of regeneration.

Lubitsch’s humor only became richer and deeper with time, and he was at the height of his artistic powers when he was felled by the last of a series of cardiac episodes, this one induced by making love on a full stomach. News of his early death was received as a tragedy by his Hollywood contemporaries. His last film, Cluny Brown (1946), a wet raspberry blown at the English class system that paired Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones, the latter an exceptionally comely plumber, ranks among his very finest, though at the time of its release his output had already been slowed by his declining health. This marked the only slackening of the feverish pace he set through his long career, aside from a pause for recalibration in the mid-1930s, a period described by critic Andrew Sarris during which the director was reckoning with “the resurgence of censorship, the delayed realization that breadlines and Continental sophistication didn’t mix and that a wink was no match for a wisecrack, and the pervasive humorlessness of both the left and the right.” All of which sounds rather familiar, and which renders Lubitsch’s serious frivolity a near necessity today. He’s more blissfully irrelevant now than ever.

“The Lubitsch Touch” runs Friday, June 2, through Thursday, June 15, at Film Forum in New York.