What did the “Lubitsch touch” look like before it was the “Lubitsch touch”? There are plenty of clues in this welcome reissue of Masters of Cinema’s Lubitsch in Berlin box set, subtitled Fairy-Tales, Melodramas, and Sex Comedies – an indication of the thematic breadth of the German American director’s early years. The set is exquisitely curated, with the six films that form the collection operating as a definitive summation of his work for Ufa in Germany as well as setting out the artistic and thematic paths that would lead to masterpieces such as Trouble in Paradise (1932) and To Be or Not to Be (1942).
Lubitsch began his career as a member of Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theatre in Berlin. After becoming frustrated with undemanding bit parts, he gradually began to move into directing. He made his name during the difficult years of the Weimar regime in Germany, where he careened across a wide range of genres including epic historical dramas and, of course, romantic comedies. After both Madame Dubarry (1919) (not included in the box set) and Anna Boleyn (1920) were well-received in the US in 1921, he crossed the Atlantic and was contracted to Hollywood starlet and United Artists co-founder Mary Pickford. It was there that Lubitsch would go on to make some of the greatest pictures ever produced.
One of the great pleasures of the collection is its variety. While Lubitsch’s gift for melodrama and class comedy is evident throughout, it’s delightful to see the director veer from the eye-opening hedonist capers of Ich möchte kein Mann sein (1918) to the exotic melodrama of Sumurun (1920). The best of the set is the thrillingly innovative Die Austernprinzessin (1919), a sharply satirical comedy of manners that doubles up as a broadside against stuffy capitalism. It feels revolutionary given the contemporary political climate it played out against but, as is always the way with Lubitsch, the fleet-footed comedy is firmly at the forefront of the picture. There are clear constants across the films, both in style and construct.
A thorough and illuminating documentary by Robert Fischer is an indispensable extra, and provides great context for the pictures, in particular on how they relate to the director’s American period. We often think of Lubitsch as a director of dialogue, but what these films demonstrate is his gift for conveying the inarticulate desires of the heart through faces. One is reminded of the unspeakable pain if Herbert Marshall during the finale of Angel (1937), or the way Greta Garbo responds to the dawning recognition of love in Ninotchka (1939). The films of Lubitsch in Berlin are not only hugely enjoyable; they provide a greater understanding and appreciation of his later masterpieces.