Ernst Lubitsch was born in Berlin on January 28, 1892. He was one of the first directors to become a real star in Hollywood and to have a large audience without necessarily relying on the participation of stars in your films. His light style, typical of his films of comedy genre, Lubitsch’s touch was defined by Billy Wilder.
Born into a poor family of German Jews, Lubitsch as a young man tries to make ends meet by selling textiles. Then he casually becomes friends with Max Reinhardt, the director of the German theater in Berlin, who gets him work as an extra in shows. Then he was hired as an actor and collaborated with Reinhard also in various film productions, where he learned the technique.
At that time the cinema was still in one pioneering phase and extensive exploration. It is not difficult for Lubitsch to direct the first low-budget silent films, where he also plays the lead role. Start with thecomic slapstickgenre.
Ernst Lubitsch’s films in Germany
His first films are Schuhpalast Pinkus, from 1916, When I was dead, the same year, where Lubitsch plays a husband who recalls the protagonist of Il fu Mattia Pascal by Pirandello. Followed by The Flesh Doll and The Princess oysters, both in 1919. Ever since his first films, Ernst Lubitsch has enjoyed making fun of the absurdity of the American dream with grotesque characters of inept and selfish billionaires and spoiled and bored girls.
Since 1920 he has specialized in directing comedies with films made in Germany: Romeo and Juliet in the snow, The squirrel, Madame du Barry. In 1923 he was called to America by Mary Pickford to direct the comedy Rosita.
Lubitsch’s films in the United States
Ernst Lubitsch and Mary Pickford
Ernst Lubitsch is the first European director to arrive in Hollywood, the first of a long series. Work with all the most famous Hollywood actresses: Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Carole Lombard, Miriam Hopkins.
The collaboration with Mary Pickford does not work very well: the actress loves a certain type of roles and would like the director to choose scripts that she has in mind. Lubitsch instead prefers lighter subjects, comedies where she can describe her worldview, like Rosita.
The collaboration with Pickford ends and the director finds a job at Warner, with whom he signs a 3-year contract. In those years he made comedies such as Lady Windermere’s fun, historical films such as The Forbidden Paradise, the last great success of Emil Jannings in the United States, the actor who a few years later would have made the masterpiece of Friedrich Murnau The last laugh.
Love Parade Big Hit
The producer Irving Thalberg commissions Ernst Lubitsch to Alt-Heidelberg, an expensive film adaptation of the operetta The Student Prince, starring Camilla Horn and John Barrymore. With the film Love Parade Ernst Lubitsch uses sound in an innovative way and becomes the most famous director of Hollywood.
With Monte Carlo he perfected his use of sound even more, while with The Smiling Lieutenant of 1931 he relaunched the musical genre that had been inflated by a large number of productions. One of his rare forays into the drama genre is The Man I Killed, starring Nancy Carroll and Phillips Holmes in 1932. The film was a failure and convinced Ernst Lubitsch to devote himself only to comedy.
More films, new masterpieces
In subsequent films Lubitsch still works with one of his favorite actresses of the silent era, Pola Negri. The films are The Flame of Love, from 1923, and Forbidden Paradise, from 1924. He still makes silent films with Warner Bros: The Marriage Circle, Three Women and Kiss Me Again in 1925, where Ernst Lubitsch inspiration is very evident. received from Charles Chaplin. With Lady Windermere’s Fan, from 1925, he is based on a comedy by Oscar Wilde, making one of his most successful films.
In the thirties he created his best known masterpieces: Trouble in Paradise, from 1932, a story of thieves set in luxury hotels where truth and lies are confused. The Merry Widow, from 1934, once again set in the world of operetta. One of his best-known masterpieces is Ninotchka, shot for MGM in 1939, starring Greta Garbo in an unusually bright character. The ad campaign for the film read: ‘The movie where Greta Garbo laughs!’
The film grossed over a million dollars and Garbo was nominated for an Oscar. Ernst Lubitsch becomes one of the most important personalities in Hollywood, even outside the role of director. He becomes production manager of Paramount and president of the film fund destined to finance European directors who have emigrated to Hollywood.
After shooting two unsuccessful plays, Rendez-vous at the end of the night, and Merle-Oberon Ehekomödie, Ernst Lubitsch wrote his most famous work in 1942, a parody of Hitler. This is the film To Be or Not to Be, inspired by the play Noch ist Polen nicht verloren by the Hungarian playwright Melchior Lengyel.
In 1945, while filming A Royal Scandal, he suffered a heart attack. Ernst Lubitsch died in Bel Air a few years later, on November 30, 1947, while making The Lady in Ermine, a film completed by Otto Preminger.
The style of Ernst Lubitsch
Ernst Lubitsch’s cinema finds its full expression with sound cinema in which the director can devote himself to what he does best: dialogues. Lubitsch’s dialogues are bright, intelligent, full of humor and erotic allusions. Lubitsch was able to insert the erotic element in his films without ever showing anything: the strict censorship of the time otherwise would have blocked his films. The dialogues of the characters are full of allusions inserted in an elegant way.
To understand an artist, what could be better than listening to his statements? Here is a letter that Ernst Lubitsch wrote in 1947 to the film critic Herman G. Weinberg, with the aim of revealing his world and the background of his work.
Letter from Ernst Lubitsch to the critic Herman G. Weinberg
Beginnings as an actor
The films I made in the past can be judged on the basis of my memory and the impression aroused upon their release: certainly not according to today’s criteria. My teacher was the famous actor Victor Arnold, who has passed away today, who has had a tremendous influence on my entire career and my future. Not only did he introduce me to Max Reinhardt, but I also owe him my first success in film: he got me the role of the apprentice in Die Firma Heiratet.
Then I was the protagonist of another film, Der Stolz der Firma, but despite the success I immediately realized that I had come to a standstill. They had cataloged me, and it seemed that no one could write a new part for me. After these two successes, I therefore found myself on the edge of the cinema, and since I had no intention of giving up, it seemed to me necessary to start writing to create the right parts.
Writing for himself
In collaboration with a friend, actor Eric Schönfelder, I wrote a series of subjects for one-roll comedians, which I sold to the Union: I was a director and performer, and if my acting career had continued without obstacles, I wonder if I would have become a director …
From screenwriter to director
But after having successfully made this series of comedians, I decided to try my hand at a real film, and like all actors I wanted a leading part, a “nice” character. So it was that with the help of my collaborators I wrote a film script called Als Ich Tot War.
A total fiasco: the spectators were not at all willing to accept me as the lead actor … I then thought of trying the genre that had given me my first successes, and Schuhpalast Pinkus came, a triumph: so I signed a new contract with the Union for a series of films of that type. I would like to point out that at that time the “comedians” were certainly not considered second-class; on the contrary, they were very successful.
It was around that time that I discovered Ossi Oswalda, and gave her her first chance in one of my films. The audience liked it so much that I ended up giving her the lead role and contenting myself with directing. As time passed, I was more interested in directing than acting.
And after my first dramatic film (The Eyes of the Mummy, 1918, with Negri and Jannings), I felt that acting had lost all value for me. It was only in 1919, it seems to me, that I reappeared in front of the camera, to play Sumurun; and my last appearance in the theater dates back to 1918, in a magazine entitled Die Welt geht unter, at the Apollo in Berlin.
Comedies in Germany
The three most successful comedies I have made in Germany are The Oyster Princess, The Meat Doll and Two Sisters. The Oyster Princess is my first film to reveal a defined style. I remember a very controversial sequence in those days. A poor fellow has to make an antechamber in the splendid entrance hall of a multimillionaire’s building.
To overcome the impatience and humiliation of the hours of waiting, the poor fellow walks along the contours of the very complex and refined drawings of the floor: it was not easy to render these shades, and I don’t know if I succeeded, but it was the first. time I was trying to take the step that separates comedy from satire.
The style ofis quite different The Flesh Doll, which was equally successful: it was a pure fantasy, with cardboard or even paper décors. Even today, I think it’s one of the most inventive films I’ve made. But Two Sisters – a kind of tamed Shrew in the Bavarian mountains, with a distinctly German flavor – was the most popular of the series, and was remade three or four times.
films Among the “historical costume films”, the three most remembered are Carmen, Madame Du Barry, Anna Boleyn. Their importance, in my opinion, lies in the fact that they were placed on a distinctly different level compared to the Italian school then in vogue, and which was so much “Grand-Opera”. Instead, I tried to remove any operatic aura, to humanize the historical characters, to treat their intimate nuances with the same evidence as the mass movements, placing them in close relationship with the latter.
On this level one can remember, even if it is less than the three mentioned, Sumurun, a pleasant fantasy taken from a show by Reinhardt. A complete fiasco was The Squirrel, which also contained more ideas and more satirical spirit than many of my other films. But it came out shortly after the war ended and German viewers must have been unwilling to accept a play that made fun of war and militarism.
There are two other films from my German period that in my opinion have been underestimated: they are Rausch (1919) and The flame of love (1922). As an alternative to the large historical frescoes, I felt the need to make small “kammerspiel“: and the two attempts were successful, also because, of course, the acting of Asta Nielsen, Alfred Abel and Karl Meinhardt, as well as the other interpreters of Rausch, it was truly extraordinary, and was immediately hailed as a perfect example of the “stylekammerspiel“.
The same can be said of The Flame of Love with Pola Negri, although the version released in the United States and titled Montmartre was cut into pieces and had a different ending: it had nothing to do with the original version and cannot give no idea of its scope and dramatic value. In the silent films that I made in Germany, and then in the United States, I have always tried to use the captions as little as possible.
My aim was to tell the story through the nuances, the images, the expression of the actors. I often resorted to long scenes in which people talked without being interrupted by captions: the movements of the lips took on the same value in them as in a pantomime. Not that I wanted the words to be read on the lips of the spectators but I tried to calculate the timing of the lines in such a way as to facilitate a sort of “visual listening”.
The American Period
Of my American period, they are obviously well informed, and I can therefore be shorter. I will limit myself to underlining the films which from my point of view remain the most significant of that period. Among the silent films I would like to mention The Marriage Circle, Lady Windermere’s Fan, The Patriot, and even Kiss me again. The sound ones are too well known both to you, dear Weinberg, and to your colleague Huff, for me to have to elaborate.
I therefore pass directly to the period which in the Supplement to «Sight and Sound» is defined my decline. It will certainly be true that my career has begun its downward path, it is certainly not up to me to discuss it. I would also like to point out that at this stage I have made four films that in one way or another emerge from mediocrity, and among these there are three that, in the opinion of many, represent the best I have ever done: I am talking about Competent tip, Ninotchka, and of Write me stationary mail.
The most beautiful last films
On a purely stylistic level, I believe that nothing has ever succeeded me as well as Trouble in Paradise. In the field of satire, I have never been as sharp as in Ninotchka, and I believe I have succeeded, in this film, in the far from easy task of mixing political satire with a love story. And about comedy – we want to talk about human comedy? – I think I have never achieved the quality of The Shop Around the Corner: I have never made a film in which the atmosphere and the characters were as real, plausible.
Made in twenty-six days on a modest budget, the film was certainly not spectacular or sensational, but it did have a good success. Then there is Heaven Can Wait (1943), which I consider one of my most important films, because I tried to free myself in various ways from the established formulas. Before the film was finished, I met strong opposition: the film had no purpose, it did not communicate any “message”. The protagonist was concerned only with living well, and did not try to perform any noble deeds.
When at the Studio they asked me why I wanted to make such a film, I replied that my intention was to introduce the audience to a certain number of characters, in the hope that they would find them pleasant: this would be enough to make the film a success. So, in fact, it happened: luckily I was right.
In addition, I was able to show a happy marriage in a more authentic light than what normally happens in the cinema, where successful marriages are generally described as a very boring, unexciting thing, all home.
To Be or Not to Be (1942) aroused a number of controversies, and in my opinion it was unfairly attacked. The film did not make fun of the Polish resistance at all: it was just a satire of the theater and Nazism, of the methods and madness of Nazism. Ironic as it is, I suspect that this image of Nazism was truer than the one shown to us in so many novels, short stories and films on the same subject, where the Germans appear besieged by a kind of Nazi gang, and all tense to fight, to resist. as long as they can. I never believed it. And it seems to me that it is now sufficiently proven that there was never a real spirit of resistance among the Germans.
In recent times, my business has unfortunately been interrupted by a long, serious illness and a series of relapses; but I hope to start a new film titledas soon as possible The Lady in Ermine: it will be my first musical film in fifteen years now. Finally, yes, I agree with Mr. Huff I have sometimes made films that were not worthy of my standard. But couldn’t it be said that all these films, at least in comparison with the grosser and more mediocre things usually made, are worthy of their standard? Of course, if you disagree with my remarks, or if you don’t find them useful, you may very well throw them in the bin. (1947)
Ernst Lubitsch’s films to watch
Here is a selection of the masterpieces of the legendary director Ernst Lubitsch not to be missed.
Lady Windermere’s Fan, 1925
Lady Windermere rejects the courtship of Lord Darlington, a tenacious suitor, while her husband tries to hide that Mrs. Erlynne is Lady Windermere’s mother, believed dead. But Erlinne is willing to do anything to get to know her daughter.
Inspired by a work by Oscar Wilde, it is the first film in which Ernst Lubitsch demonstrates extraordinary cinematic skills. He manages to transform all the dialogues of Wilde’s work into images with a symbolic value and to tell the story without the need for words. The relationships between the characters are beautifully narrated through the relationship of the shots in the montage. It is a fundamental film to understand how words can turn into films without being used, how images and body language can replace verbal language.
Trouble in Paradise, 1932
Gaston and Lily are two expert thieves who court each other by stealing from each other in Venice. They become lovers and then team up to carry out new thefts. They choose rich Mariette Colet as their next victim. Gaston tries to seduce the woman, but he will end up really falling in love with her, leaving Lily in the torment of jealousy.
One of the director’s most successful films, where sound is put at the service of Lubitsch’s touch. Brilliant dialogue and tight rhythm for a comedy full of physical and verbal gags and sexual double meanings unusual for the time. Characters used to surviving cheating try to conquer love, a feeling that turns out to be something that cannot be bought or stolen. A brilliant film that behind the surface of the comedy tells the contradictions of the human soul and of a respectable and glossy world with a very original and innovative style.
Anthony Halton, a rich American, meets in Paris a mysterious woman (Marlene Dietrich) with whom he has an affair and whom he calls “Angelo”. Obsessed with the desire to see her again, he discovers that the woman is the wife of an old fellow
soldier. A Lubitsch-style classic comedy where ambiguities and the unspoken accumulate until they implode and turn into melodrama. An enigmatic story that leaves the viewer free to interpret, where passion and emotional reactions are confined outside the scene, or told through secondary characters.
The Soviet government wants to confiscate the jewels of Grand Duchess Swana, exiled to Paris. 3 Russian agents are sent to carry out the mission but are seduced by the Western lifestyle. Then an incorruptible woman is chosen, an agent named Ninotchka.
One of Ernst Lubitsch’s best-known masterpieces, a fast-paced comedy full of twists and turns that grotesquely describes the Soviet world of the time. It is the story of the transformation of a cold Nordic woman who never laughs into a woman full of life who indulges in adventures in Paris. The director expertly directs the iconic actress Greta Garbo, a star who had never played a brilliant role. At one point Garbo in a scene of the film explodes in a thunderous laugh that distorts the stereotypes of the actress and her character is transformed. In fact, the advertising campaign for the film read: La Garbo laughs!
To Be or Not to Be, 1942
The Tura theater company, directed by the comedian Joseph and his wife Maria, is preparing a play that is a ferocious satire against Nazism. But in September war breaks out and Warsaw is invaded by the Nazis. The theater company will find itself fighting in the Resistance.
Brilliant film full of irony and particularly successful comic moments, and at the same time endowed with a rigorous direction and an obsessive attention to detail. It is a story about the triumph of art and creativity over the destructive madness of power. Fantastic The interpretation of the two leading actors, Jack Benny and Carole Lombard.