Trouble in Paradise: Lubitsch Before the Touch

“No one would claim that Lubitsch’s German films were more important than his American ones (cf. Fritz Lang).” This was Richard Roud’s response to my piece “Ernst Lubitsch: German Period” in his Cinema: A Critical Dictionary. One could indeed ask whether M is better than The Big Heat, or of Murnau whether Sunrise is superior to Der letzte Mann, but with Lubitsch no such question arises. This is particularly true of his earliest works, the three-reelers before his “Grosse-filme” (Passion, One Arabian Night, and Deception, to give them their American titles). These later films gained him a reputation as the “Griffith of Europe” and were instrumental in bringing post World War I German cinema to world attention.

The pleasure afforded us today by a film like Das fidele Gefängnis (The Merry Jail) still derives from cinema’s rough and ready  heritage, which Lubitsch gleefully displays here. The three-reelers of 1916, 1917, and 1918—Schuhpalast Pinkus (Shoe Salon Pinkus), Wenn vier dasselbe tun (When Four Do Likewise), Ich möchte kein Mann sein (I Don’t Want to Be a Man), and The Merry Jail—are Lubitsch before “the Touch.”

“Too Jewish Slapstick” was film historian Lotte Eisner’s verdict on the early Lubitsch. She was herself a Berlin Jew, but from the genteel Tiergarten quarter where they used to call the “rag-trade Jews” of the Scheunen quarter Mäntelmen (coat-men)—to distinguish them from “gentlemen.” Simcha Lubitsch, Ernst’s father, was a typical Mäntelman. He had supposedly been a tailor for the Tsar’s army, before running a workshop for ladies’ garments in Berlin.

“Too Jewish” and “too slapstick.”

“Too Jewish.” Lubitsch was not ashamed of being Jewish—quite the contrary. In a 1916 interview—the  earliest that survives—he says that “Wherever Jewish humor is seen, it is likeable and well-crafted, and it plays such a major role everywhere that it would be absurd to dispense with it in the cinema.” Jewish culture is the only culture with a feeling for comedy at its very heart. Jewish humor cuts the ground from beneath the earnestness of life—a way of asserting oneself in a hostile world.

“Too slapstick.” The masses, the ensemble, count: the individual is only a part, one among many. The Merry Jail has echoes of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops and Bathing Beauties, in its troupe of black valets and in the roller-skating ballet that brings joyful chaos into Prince Zbrschowsky’s ball. Lubitsch never tackled reality head-on, preferring a back-door approach via sly humor or exaggeration—which people were still criticizing in To Be or Not to Be. The Merry Jail was made during the “swede winter” of 1917-1918. While Berliners had only turnips to eat, his heroes were drinking champagne and eating goose liver. Incorrigible. “Bring me three more orders of goose liver,” demands Mizi, the chambermaid.

The Merry Jail is an operetta without music, “Die Fledermaus” without Johann Strauss. The intertitle “Das ist hier so Sitte” (That’s the custom here) is a reference to the music-hall song’s “ist mal bei mir so Sitte.” The audience would have joined in with the next line: “…chacun à son gout” (to each his own). Lubitsch and Kräly’s script quotes Haffner and Genee’s libretto, which itself refers back to Meilhac and Halévy and their revue Réveillon, from which Lubitsch, now in Hollywood, borrowed directly for So This Is Paris, nine years after The Merry Jail. Goodbye slapstick—hello sophistication.

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