History weighs heavy around the pretty neck of Madame Dubarry. The story of a young grisette in a Paris hat shop who coquettes her way to the top, it is set on the eve of the French Revolution and was made in the middle of a German one. A cast-of-thousands spectacle, it got both its star Pola Negri and its director Ernst Lubitsch noticed by Hollywood and led to their emigration in the early 1920s, two heralds of the European exodus to come. Shot in part at Frederick the Great’s Sans Souci palace in Potsdam, Madame Dubarry displays all the delights of French life at Versailles and features German and French side-by-side on its title cards. Meanwhile, off-screen, the French occupied the Rhineland and were in charge of dismantling the German military and collecting war reparations payable in gold.

With all sides still counting casualties after the Armistice was signed in October 1918, an additional three-quarters of a million Germans succumbed to malnutrition in the wake of postwar deprivations. An industrial powerhouse before World War I, Germany’s economy was left a shambles. Taxi drivers accepted bread in lieu of cash, a permit was required to buy a pair of socks, and women from all walks of life began to “turn tricks” to feed themselves. All along the political spectrum, discontent manifested itself as violence on the streets. Sailors and soldiers mutinied, the Spartacus League propagated communist ideals with machine guns, and members of the Free Corps executed suspected reds as they saw fit. Still, the public managed to go to the movies. An essay in Der Kinematograph, published in early 1919, attests, “the movie palaces and theaters (as long as they are not in the combat zone …) go about their business unperturbed and are enjoying big audiences” (1).

Production at Ufa (Universum Film AG), the mammoth film studio formed in 1917, was one of the few things that proceeded relatively unhindered. Coal shortages limited the supply of electricity, but the quick reinvestment of rapidly devaluing marks and government subsidies kept the cameras rolling. The abundance of unemployed, when not, as expressionist artist George Grosz described them, “seething in the streets”, was now cheap fodder for cinema’s battle scenes and bread riots. Budding cineastes like Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau and Lubitsch were on the cusp of great careers, turning out their first features.

Excused from military service as a Russian citizen, Lubitsch nonetheless felt the impact of the war and its aftermath. When his father’s haberdashery business shutdown because of shortages, Lubitsch became the sole breadwinner for an ever-extending family of unfortunates crowding into their Schönhäuser Alley apartment. Working double and triple shifts, he scurried from the movie set during the day to the stage at night, either treading the “serious” boards at Max Reinhardt’s theatre or appearing in blackface at after-hours cabarets. By war’s end, Lubitsch devoted himself strictly to cinema and, by revolution’s end, had become Ufa’s most valued director. His historical spectacles generated sorely needed foreign currency when sold abroad, further fuelling German cinema’s resurgence and unsettling Hollywood producers who feared a “German Invasion”. Madame Dubarry led the impending incursion.

The tensions building among the classes in Louis XV’s France are laid out in telling tableaux early in Madame Dubarry. Jeanne (Pola Negri), the future lady of the title, arrives at the Paris rooms of Don Diego (Magnus Stifter), and a curtain is drawn open on a world of ease. She flirts, suggesting the possibility of a pleasing result for the Spanish ambassador. An uninvited Monsieur Dubarry (Karl Platen) interrupts lunch, his manner betraying his middle class origins. Jeanne, sensing her status as an interloper, ducks behind a Chinese screen, popping out occasionally to amuse the impatient aristocrat now sharing his lunch with the presumptuous Dubarry. Meanwhile, Jeanne’s neglected boyfriend, Armand (Harry Liedtke), is denied entry. The class war begins.

Lubitsch encapsulates the failings of all three estates in witty cinematic shorthand. One of the mounted royal cortège stomps on Jeanne’s hatbox, and the frame fills with the beautiful close-up of the horse’s ass. On the long walk to the altar to lend Jeanne his title, the inebriated Count Dubarry (Eduard von Winterstein) betrays himself with a slight stumble. His ignoble brother Monsieur Dubarry, who traded Jeanne to King Louis XV (Emil Jannings) in order to pay off his gambling debts, is caught one night in his bedchamber looking ridiculous in what can only be described as curlers. The poor largely remain a faceless mass in the film, unleashed only in the third act for the bread riot, the storming of the Bastille, and the Reign of Terror.

Film historian Lotte Eisner once complained of Madame Dubarry, “For Lubitsch, one-time shop assistant, History was never to be more than a pretext for telling love stories in sumptuous period costume: silks, velvets and trimmings delighted his knowing eye” (2). Written with a capital “H”, Eisner’s history was no place for Lubitsch’s subtle handiwork. But what else do we need to know about power than what is illustrated in the deathbed scene, the king prostrate in the well-lit background while ministers scheme in foreground shadows? In her unfair reproach of the haberdasher’s son for his careful attention to detail, Eisner was right about one thing: Madame Dubarry is first and last the story of a girl in love.

From the first frame, Pola Negri charms us as Jeanne. Delightfully mischievous, she has a girlish way of getting what she wants. First, seeking someone to tote the hat she is delivering, she catches a stranger’s eye. Cut, and she’s leading him with her parcel in tow toward her true destination, her boyfriend’s place. Next, Sunday lunch with an aristocrat. She chooses the don over her commoner boyfriend, by counting, and then quickly recounting, the ribbons on her dress. Her ultimate prize? A pedicure from a king. When she commands the smitten Louis to sit back down, keeping him from the business of the realm, she exercises exceptional power for a grisette.

It all comes at a high cost, of course. When her eyes brim over from abuse at the gruff hands of Monsieur Dubarry, we can’t help but think of the many women in postwar Germany then resorting to prostitution. At the king’s coffin our sympathies again surge for Jeanne, when a glowering minister denies her a final goodbye. (She really cared for him!) When she climbs the scaffold to meet her doom, she makes a last request: “Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau, un petit moment”. These final words were those of the actual Madame Dubarry and went unheeded by history and by Lubitsch, who ends the film the way he began it, Jeanne’s face encircled within the frame.

Madame Dubarry premiered in Berlin on 18 September 1919, inaugurating Ufa’s largest movie palace, Palast am Zoo. After the screening, former mentor Max Reinhardt reportedly told Lubitsch, “The student has surpassed the master”. Released in the United States in late 1920 as Passion, Madame Dubarry was followed in quick succession on the American market by Lubitsch’s other period spectacles – Carmen (1918, as Gypsy Blood), Anna Boleyn (1920, as Deception) Sumurun (1920, as One Arabian Night), and Das Weib des Pharao (1922, as Pharaoh’s Wife). Mary Pickford, looking to mature her onscreen image, offered Lubitsch – who by then had earned the moniker “Europe’s D.W. Griffith” – the job of directing what became Rosita (1923). When Lubitsch arrived, Negri was already in Hollywood, having been signed by Adolph Zukor in 1922. Madame Dubarry’s king, Emil Jannings and its writer, Hanns Kräly, a longtime Lubitsch collaborator, later emigrated as well. A German invasion did loom on the horizon, but it was going to be one of talent rather than films.

Opting out of the artistic freedoms of the Weimar era, Lubitsch escaped the certain personal disaster awaiting all of Germany’s Jews – Madame Dubarry inadvertently reaching down through time to rescue him. He went on to charm American moviegoers with silent films like The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927) and his Maurice Chevalier-Jeannette MacDonald musicals of the early sound era. But it was his sly romantic comedies, his love stories, in fact – Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), and Heaven Can Wait (1943) – that earned Lubitsch his place in the Hollywood canon. A bit of leavening in the heavy load of history.


  1. Egon Jacobsohn, “Neuheiten auf dein Berliner Filmmarkte”, cited in Klaus Kreimeie, The Ufa Story: A History of Germany’s Greatest Film Company, 1918-1945, trans. Robert and Rita Kimber, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1999, p. 48.
  2. Lotte Eisner, The Haunted Screen, trans. Roger Greaves, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1973, p. 82.

Madame Dubarry (1919 Germany 119 mins)
Prod Co: Projektions-AG Union (PAGU) Prod: Paul Davidson Dir: Ernst Lubitsch Scr: Fred Orbing, Hanns Kräly Phot: Theodor Sparkuhl Prod Des: Karl Machus, Kurt Richter
Cast: Pola Negri, Emil Jannings, Reinhold Schünzel, Harry Leidtke, Eduard von Winterstein, Elsa Berna, Karl Platen

About The Author

Shari Kizirian edits the program books for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

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