Ernst Lubitsch had a nose for class, an ear for wealth, and an eye for sex – so why do we only ever talk about his touch? More than any other in Hollywood, the Berlin-born director was in full command of his senses, and above all, the man had taste. Always chewing a long cigar and sporting a pointed pocket square, he seemed possessed of a cool, urbane mien and ticklish wit, and there’s not a single Lubitsch-themed anecdote that doesn’t account for his piercing intellect. At work, his hand was not only that of a director’s, but a tailor’s and architect’s, and for almost 30 years in America – from The Love Parade (1929) to Cluny Brown (1946) – Lubitsch scaled the highs and lows (in wealth and trouser) of the bon vivants and nouveau-riche to whom he had grown so familiar in his homeland. So why do his Berlin comedies remain so overlooked?
In large part it’s down to the persisting allure of the ‘Touch’, a slogan wheezily regurgitated every time critics need to encapsulate the auteur’s quote-unquote European delicacy. But Lubitsch was not a European, nor was he a typical German. He was, as Jean Renoir once observed, a tie-to-laces Berliner, boasting the “essence of the intellectual… in those days,” and his cinema belonged to the precise moment that the capital was soaking in “the Edenic flush of total erotic freedom.”1
By the late 1910s, following its humiliating military defeat in the First World War and the formation of a new democratic Republic, Germany was entering a period of intense social, cultural, and intellectual renewal. With the repealing of a moral censor imposed under the Kaiserreich, and the shock of settling into political consensus, Berliners suddenly hurled themselves into a frenzy of hedonistic expression, and the city became a hotbed of artistic and scientific innovation, and taboo activity. Cabaret and prostitution became major economic engines, cocaine was hawked on street corners for use in orgies, and fetish pornography had become so easy to procure that the mainstream cinema of the time was struggling to keep up with the particulars of the sexual revolution.
It was into this climate, on 26 June 1919, that Lubitsch released one of the smuttiest films of his silent period, Die Austernprinzessin (The Oyster Princess), although by Berlin’s standards it was a model of tact and reserve. The film was another vehicle for Ossi Oswalda, with whom he’d collaborated on the previous year’s Ich mochte kein Mann sein (I Wouldn’t Like To Be A Man), and 1919’s Die Puppe… (The Doll). The German press had claimed Ossi as their own Mary Pickford, but Oswalda was defiantly her own woman, and her persona skirted dangerously between impish infant and ribald nymphet – arguably a new ‘type’ for the cinema of 1919, but one that endures to this day in, for example, Parks and Recreation’s “klepto, nympho, pyro” Mona-Lisa Saperstein, whose furious temper and libido are nested within a clear socio-economic (“money pleeeease!”) and nepotistic framework.
In I Wouldn’t Like To Be A Man, Ossi played the whiskey-chugging, tobacco-chomping madam of a household whose patriarchal codes are overturned when she enters high society as a man, and in The Doll she becomes a life-size sex doll rented by the local monastery to fleece a naïve nobleman into a financially fortuitous marriage. The monks desired purchase? More pork knuckles. So while The Oyster Princess doesn’t pose the most radical premise of her career, it was Ossi’s raciest role to date, playing the pampered daughter of a seafood tycoon (Victor Janson) who decides that, if the shoe-polisher’s daughter can marry a prince, so can she.
Her father – a bored, beefy American with a bevy of black servants – posts a request to the match-maker Seligson (Max Kronert), asking that he find a suitable husband for his bratty daughter. The Cupid’s index of suitors, pinned on a wall that could be an analog precursor to Tinder, finally reveals a match in Prince Nucki (Harry Liedtke), a nobleman who has fallen on hard times. Spotting an opportunity to reclaim some wealth, he sends his bald and dim-witted friend Josef (Julius Falkenstein) to assess the bride-to-be. But a few hours and one case of mistaken identity later, and Ossi has married the befuddled Josef…
The Oyster Princess is a comedy of manners, starring a quartet of characters who possess precisely none. The Oyster King, zonked out on sheer corpulence, is going through the motions with his newly accrued wealth, while the stringy Prince Nucki, who is now reduced to hand-washing his own suits, thinks nothing to getting toasted on the town in celebration of a marriage – and therefore an inheritance – that he hasn’t yet consummated.
If the want for sex drives most of the commotion in a Lubitsch picture, it’s trumped only by the want for money, and in The Oyster Princess, wealth is explicitly acknowledged as granting Ossi access to easy, legally-binding sex. In the classic Trouble In Paradise (1932), the heartbroken Lily (Miriam Hopkins) sums up the tradeoff perfectly, screaming to her beau – who’s possibly fallen for a perfume heiress – “This is what I want! This is real! Cash!” For Lubitsch, there’s no love without lucre.
Like the Berlin of 1919, The Oyster Princess depicts a capital torn from old-world order and re-shaped by a new generation – including settling foreigners – whose drunken stupor is spilling out into the streets. Money buys decadence; decadence reflects money. If the non-specific European city of The Oyster Princess is located far away from Berlin itself, in that enchanting snowglobe known as Lubitschland, it at least captured the vanity, lust, and churning social climate of the present-tense from which it had sprung. The qualities that, just a few years later, Lubitsch would take overseas and, to revisit Renoir, “convert the Hollywood industry to his own way of expression.”
Die Austernprinzessin. / The Oyster Princess (1919 Germany 60 mins)
Prod. Co: Projektions-AG Union (PAGU) Prod: Paul Davidson Dir: Ernst Lubitsch Scr: Hanns Kräly, Ernst Lubitsch Phot: Theodor Sparkuhl Prod Des: Kurt Richter
Cast: Victor Janson, Ossi Oswalda, Harry Liedtke, Julius Falkenstein, Max Kronert
- Mel Gordon, Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin (Feral House, 2000), p. 20. ↩