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November 28 - 30, 2003

The (Silent) Lubitsch Touch

One of the few filmmakers to achieve international acclaim in both the silent and sound eras, Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947) was the son of a Berlin tailor who began his career as an actor in Max Reinhardt’s legendary theater company and on the side appeared in early German comic one-reelers. While his transition to film directing came in this arena of ethnic comedy shorts, Lubitsch would emerge as one of the most talented creators of large-scale costume dramas, initiated by a series of historical films starring screen diva Pola Negri. Despite a genuine facility for mounting mega-productions such as Carmen and Madame Dubarry, what set Lubitsch apart was his celebrated “touch”— a scrupulous eye for telling detail matched by a sophisticated handling of affairs of the heart. His assured command of the medium remained undiminished during his shift from Germany to Hollywood, from the silent cinema to the talkies, and from the “Roaring 20s” to the more restrained world of the Depression.

This program is co-presented with the Goethe Institut, Boston, the Boston Jewish Film Festival, and the Brattle Theatre.


November 28 (Friday) 7 pm
November 30 (Sunday) 7 pm
Live Piano Accompaniment by Martin Marks

Lady Windermere’s Fan

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
US, 1925, b/w, silent, 94 min.
With Ronald Colman, May McAvoy, Irene Rich

Among the finest of Lubitsch’s American films of the silent era, Lady Windermere’s Fan is a sophisticated adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play that injects the Lubitsch touch into the classic comedy of manners. Set in the upper-crust world of London’s Mayfair, the story revolves around the pampered wife of a British lord who faces “a grave problem”: finalizing the seating chart for the guests at her dinner party. The world manages to intrude upon Lady Windermere in the form of a would-be suitor (a young, dashing Ronald Colman), a déclassé widow (Rich), and the gossip that such society seems to heap upon its own. In a pre–Academy Award era, Lubitsch had to content himself with the film’s emergence on the list of the “Top Ten Films of 1925.” It is also, notably, the first film to have been screened at the HFA, in 1979.

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November 28 (Friday) 9 pm - Live Piano Accompaniment

The Marriage Circle

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
US, 1924, b/w, silent, 92 min.
With Marie Prevost, Monte Blue, Adolphe Menjou

One of Lubitsch’s classic sex comedies, The Marriage Circle is set in Vienna in the early days of the last century, a bygone era that critic Herman G. Weinberg evocatively described as “a vanished world of roses, kisses and embraces, of whispers and sighs, of a woman’s shadowed arm encased in georgette beckoning across a moonlit garden.” The story revolves around Mizzie, the promiscuous wife of a professor who sets her flirtatious sights on her best friend’s husband, a handsome physician. The ensuing romantic roundelay reveals a latent attraction of the doctor’s medical partner for his wife as well as the growing suspicion of the beleaguered spouses that something is not well with their marriages. The film is filled with the quaint details Weinberg describes as well as Lubitsch’s shrewd insights into human nature.

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November 29 (Saturday) 7 pm - Live Piano Accompaniment

The Oyster Princess (Die Austernprinzessin)

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Germany, 1919, b/w, silent, 65 min.
With Victor Janson, Ossi Oswalda, Curt Bois

Made during the most prolific year of Lubitsch’s career while still in Germany, The Oyster Princess marked a new direction for the director’s work in comedy—away from slapstick and toward a more sophisticated form of satire. Here the target of his humor is the American bourgeoisie, personified by a wealthy businessman, the “oyster king,” who is ensconced in a European villa filled with servants and assistants. Material wealth, however, is insufficient to satisfy the ambitions of these Americans, and the businessman’s daughter, having read of the marriage of the “shoe-polish princess” to a nobleman, begs her father to buy her a prince. The ensuing tale manages to wring humor from both the boundless hubris of the Americans and the haughty attitudes of a European aristocracy now fallen on hard times.

Madame Dubarry (Passion)

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Germany, 1919, b/w, silent, 85 min.
With Pola Negri, Emil Jannings, Harry Liedtke

Despite historian Siegfried Kracauer’s pithy critique of this film (“the story’s contempt for historic facts is matched only by its disregard for their meaning”), Lubitsch’s Madame Dubarry was the film that ended the American embargo on German cinema following World War I and, as such, launched a “German invasion” that would radically transform American movie-making. Retitled Passion to bolster its star’s appeal, the film focuses on the romantic and political intrigues that reverberated throughout the court of Louis XV and reimagines the origins of the French Revolution in the libidinous shifts of fortune of Madame Dubarry (Negri), mistress to the king. What Lubitsch sacrificed in authenticity, he readily made up for in spectacle—with his stunning sets, elaborate costumes and props, and leviathan crowd scenes replete with 5,000 extras.

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