Lubitsch’s career provides an almost unique example of a filmmaker working during the studio era who was at the top of one national cinema, moved to another, and became its leading director as well.

-Kristin Thompson, Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood (1)


Upon reaching the United States late in 1922, Ernst Lubitsch, “the most significant German film talent to emerge during the war,” (2) had already been hailed as the “European Griffith… the German film wizard, master of tragedy, and the man who makes history live.” (3) His critical stature was soon to be exceeded by his status inside the industry: within four years, Lubitsch was to become the highest paid director in Hollywood, earning $175,000 per picture or an astonishing $75,000 more than runner-up Erich von Stroheim. (4) As Kristin Thompson summarizes, “Germany’s top director had become, arguably, Hollywood’s top director.” (5)

Much of Lubitsch’s reputation at the time of his emigration – as the above plaudits indicate – rested in the achievement of his costume dramas, and particularly in the international success of his 1919 Passion (a.k.a. Madame Dubarry). Lubitsch’s film became the first German film to screen in the United States after the war, playing in New York’s largest motion picture theatre, the Capitol, “for months,” (6) while “the prospects of great profits even made it to the headlines of the American trade journals.” (7) Yet, it was not simply that Lubitsch had a commercial success with Passion, but that its achievement was linked with the film’s direction. As Sabine Hake notes in her revealingly titled Passions and Deceptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch, “the promotional campaign for [the director’s subsequent] Deception already focused on Lubitsch as a major asset.” (8) According to Motion Picture World, Lubitsch was a “master of stagecraft,” (9) in addition to being “the great humanizer of history on the screen.” (10)

In spite of Lubitsch’s early stature, most film critics and scholars have affirmed the superiority of the director’s American work. Andrew Sarris explains the relative weight allotted to each phase, noting that the director’s German phase spanned eight years between 1915 and 1923, while his American period lasted “three times as long,” concluding finally with his death in 1947. (11) The fact that his American phase further encompasses his mid and late careers – and thus the majority if not the totality of his mature corpus – further explains the preference granted to Lubitsch’s American films. Of course, Fritz Lang might here serve as a counterexample, given the continued high esteem held for his German work. (12) While it might be stated simply that Lang’s German career eclipsed Lubitsch’s, even as the latter’s American period bested Lang’s, Sarris nonetheless has stipulated that “Lubitsch was always the least Germanic of German directors, as Lang was the most Germanic.” (13) In other words, the center of each director’s work, their essence as an artist (be it thematically or stylistically) belongs to one rather than the other nationality. Indeed, for Thomas Elsaesser, Lubitsch remade himself “several times in Hollywood’s image, while, miraculously, becoming ever more himself.” (14) Lubitsch became Lubitsch in Hollywood, and especially in the “apparently… frivolous, but poignantly balanced comedies Trouble in Paradise (1932), Design for Living (1933), Angel (1937) and Ninotchka (1939),” upon which collectively, Elsaesser argues, the director’s reputation “deserves to rest.” (15)

But what then shall we say for Lubitsch’s German period, if it is Hollywood achievements – including such silent masterworks as The Marriage Circle (1924) and Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925) – that are considered the standard bearers of the director’s strength as a filmmaker? Specifically, if Lubitsch “made his reputation with splendid historical sagas like Madame Dubarry,” (16) what interest is their in this earlier work when it was a subject matter and aesthetic that the director eschewed in his later, consensually superior work? Are these earlier films curiosities from an auteurist point of view, or do they still possess the capacity to tell us something significant about Lubitsch’s film practice?

In order to isolate the auteurist value in the director’s German period, it seems most useful to look not at those films that established Lubitsch’s trans-Atlantic reputation, but rather on his silent comedies, provided the generic affinities that they possess for his later film art. In particular, the following piece will analyze the director’s manipulation of spectatorial attention in his German comedic corpus – through their mise-en-scène and editing – as well as their uniformly reflexive subject matter. (17) These specific films offer a rich point of comparison both formally and also thematically with the director’s best known Hollywood silents, The Marriage Circle and Lady Windermere’s Fan, which I will treat following my analysis of the German pictures. Through these comparisons, I will contend that Lubitsch’s early thematic preoccupations and his relationships with the industries he inhabited maintained a consistency before and after his immigration, revealing an artist who remained forever conscious of his own artistry in the medium of cinema. Lubitsch, in other words, was fully himself before moving on to Hollywood.

The Oyster Princess and Pre-Classical Film Editing

Released in 1919, Ernst Lubitsch’s Die Austernprinzessin (The Oyster Princess), a “grotesque comedy in four acts,” treats the eponymous shellfish heiress’s (Ossi Oswalda as Ossi) search for a quick marriage with a member of the titled aristocracy – in this instance Harry Liedtke as Prince Nucki. At the commencement of the second act, the Prince’s representative Josef (Julius Falkenstein) is sent to meet the princess in the nobleman’s stead. The act opens with a long shot of dozens of formally-attired servants standing at attention in the oyster mogul’s voluminous great hall. Josef enters from the lower right corner of the frame, moving into the composition’s foreground, wherein he is greeted by the simultaneous bows of the staff. He returns their gesture and turns toward the camera, at which point his hat and waking stick are retrieved by the attentive staff. After another set of servants brush off his coat, Josef is asked for a card via an inter-title. The visitor grimaces, evidently realizing he does not possess a card of his own, pats his chest and then searches his wallet, before giving the Prince’s card to the insistent butler. Importantly, at this moment of realization, Falkenstein glances briefly at the camera before turning his attention to his inside pocket. As such, Lubitsch permits his comic performer the look into the camera that had been previously prohibited in Hollywood’s cinema of ‘narrative integration’; (18) by comparison, this strategy remained a staple of European cinema through at least the middle of the 1910s, in films such as those of French director Louis Feuillade, and his 1915-6 serial, Les Vampires.

Likewise, that director’s predilection for tableaux framing is equally operative in The Oyster Princess. (19) In the above scene, Josef enters a composition of the large interior, quickly moving to its foreground where he gestures toward the camera. He remains in this shallow foreground space throughout the sequence’s extended take, wherein Lubitsch refuses to cut-in to closer views or to reframe his consistently frontal mise-en-scène. Lubitsch’s film, in other words, does not respond to Hollywood’s contemporary editing norms, its analytical system that breaks down the visual field through its use of sequential establishing shots, cut-ins and reverse-angles; rather the director has created a space that is properly theatrical in its orientation. (20) In The Oyster Princess, the screen space is a proscenium.

Lubitsch maintains this same frontal framing in the following set-up. Here, the servant to whom Josef has given the Prince’s card delivers the item to Quaker (Victor Janson) and his daughter Ossi. Both sit in the lower foreground with their cropped bodies facing the camera. (Unlike Falkenstein, both Janson and Oswalda direct their glances across and away from the apparatus.) The servant’s movement sutures the two spaces as he moves to the rear of the frame in the first image and then toward the camera and his employers in the second. Following a cut in which we see the buffoonish Josef tumbling into a fountain, Lubitsch returns to the pair as Quaker stands up and tells his daughter to wake him when she makes a decision. In the next shot, we return to Josef who has been led into their enormous, empty drawing room. After circling the space in the deep middle distance – Lubitsch manages an extensive depth-of-field throughout – Josef approaches the camera, looks directly into the apparatus and states the following (reproduced in an inter-title): “They do live well!” Hence Lubitsch again refuses to abide by classical Hollywood notions of diegesis formation in which the spectator is presumed immune from the returned look of the object of vision. (21) He does not posit a world viewed unawares in this instance, but rather a cinema organized around the two-way interactivity of theatre or opera. (22) Our look is returned.

At the same time, The Oyster Princess does foreground its cinematic inheritance in Lubitsch’s systematic strategy of cross-cutting, which recurs throughout the remainder of the scene and indeed the picture. As the act continues, the King of industry is attended by his African servants, who in true Fordist fashion each fulfill overly specialized labor roles in preparing the gentleman for his nap. Lubitsch then cuts to a third space where Ossi is being undressed by a similarly diversified group of servant girls. This activity again occurs in the immediate foreground, frontally composed, with her servants holding up a robe to shield the now nude ‘Princess’ – thereby also thwarting the voyeuristic spectacle inherent in the activity. Following another set of cuts to Quaker and then back to Ossi still dressing, Lubitsch returns to Josef whom the director notes with an inter-title has grown “impatient.” Thus, Lubitsch has created a comedy that trades on the passage’s simultaneity: as Ossi interminably prepares for her visitor, her completely indifferent father goes to bed while Josef submits himself to a seemingly ceaseless waiting. Whereas D. W. Griffith used this technique to procure suspense – as for instance in The Lonely Villa or The Drive for Life (both 1909), where a male protagonist must literally race home to save an endangered woman – Lubitsch uses the film’s temporality to prompt character boredom. Griffith’s innovation has been appropriated for comic effect.

Back to Oswalda, the scene continues with doors opening onto a second section of Ossi’s bedroom, displaying two additional, lengthy rows of servants separated by a raised tub. Ossi descends into the frame, climbs the stairs to the bath, and is undressed by her female servants who block her nude body from the camera. Rather than immediately cutting in to a close-up of Ossi in the bath – as is normative within the classical system of analytic cutting – Lubitsch instead inserts an image of Josef continuing to circle the drawing room, before cutting in to the closer view of Ossi, nude from her shoulders up, as she is scrubbed by her attendants. Indeed, this technique of separating varied framings of a single space is utilized throughout The Oyster Princess, as for instance in the earlier arrival of the matchmaker at Nucki and Josef’s, where the cuts to the matchmaker outside the door prompts first a tighter framing of the men as Nucki removes his rings (as he assumes that it is a debt collector at the door) and then a longer view as they prepare their apartment – and the Prince’s makeshift throne – for their visitor.

This is not to suggest, however, that Lubitsch never cuts within a single space – though his methods of doing so again differ from norms of analytic cutting. The first is the director’s use of ‘jumps’ during the film’s centerpiece wedding banquet sequence. We first see this strategy as the house’s staff serves the seated diners. In the course of this individual set-up, we see three rows of servers waiting on the banquet-goers in successive waves. Between each group, Lubitsch cuts (eliding small fragments of the scene’s duration) while maintaining the same set-up. Later, during the “fox trot” outbreak, a substantial numbers of cuts are visible without the utilization of cutaways to mask the edits. That these occur during the dance sequence, however, endows the cutting with a rhythmic effect to simulate the jerky motion of the ‘fox trot’ presented on screen. In short, Lubitsch cuts both to trim time off his narrative and also to mime the staccato movements presented on screen. Whereas the technique reads as primitive in the first case, Lubitsch’s choice in the latter passages matches the take’s content with an unconventional form.

On the occasion that Lubitsch cuts into close-up, the director masks his magnified imagery in an iris-shaped frame. A telling instance of this technique occurs with Ossi’s eventual meeting with Josef (whom she mistakes for the Prince). Having joined Josef immediately in front of the camera, cropped in a tight medium two-shot, Ossi faces the apparatus as she sticks out her hand, turning away from her supposed fiancé. He kisses her hand, looks briefly into the camera and says, “smells good.” Following the title, Lubitsch reuses the same framing before cutting into one of the aforesaid masked close-ups of Ossi who looking Josef over with a monocle mouths the words relayed in the subsequent title, “good Lord, he looks stupid!” In this way, Lubitsch has located a method of relaying Ossi’s reaction without also treating Josef’s response to her verbal proclamation.

The masked frame in other words insulates both Ossi and the film’s spectators from Josef’s reaction. This is a moment of direct address between Ossi and viewer (to whom the third person of the title is intended principally). The close-up issues from the necessity of procuring a visual intimacy that the film’s contrary tableaux style framing generally refuses. The masking connotes a move into a closer view, compared with the edit’s conventional function in The Oyster Princess: to present a view of a separate space. The close-up is thus used to exclude in this instance rather than to emphasize. The mask assists in this delimitation.

Stylistic Hyperbole and Parody in The Wildcat

The technique of masking the frame does not simply reoccur in the director’s 1921 The Wildcat (Die Bergkatze) but in fact dominates Lubitsch’s later comedy. Here, the form exceeds any narrative justification – as for instance, its’ procurement of intimacy and foreclosing against Josef’s reaction in The Oyster Princess – becoming instead a parody of this artificial figure’s employment in Expressionist cinema.

Among the many striking passages of this technique’s implementation is Lieutenant Alexis’s (Paul Heidemann) first encounter with Pola Negri’s rabid mountain woman, Rischka. After leaving a crowd of women and their children who wave “bye, Daddy!” to the departing Alexis – who thusly prefigures Maurice Chevalier’s lothario protagonists – we are introduced to Rischka and her bandit cohorts in a series of curvilinear, clam-shell shaped masks that periodically morph into slightly distinctive wave-shaped forms. Among these images, we also see a circular mask of Rischka’s father Claudius (Wilhelm Diegelmann) and an oval of another of the bandits. Eventually, Rischka spots the approaching Alexis on the bottom of the mountain in a thin, diagonally-masked frame. Following a circular mask in which Rischka runs down the hillside toward the camera, Lubitsch cuts to another oyster shell-shaped mask of Alexis stopping his sleigh. After two more reverses using circular and cloud-shaped masks, Lubitsch then masks a frame containing Rischka in an octagon-shape, before eventually showcasing the sleigh rushing off in a lip-shaped mask, the bandits sliding down the hill in a narrow vertical bar, and finally Alexis in a mandorla shape. Like each of the figures that have preceded it, this final almond-shaped mask utilizes hard edges as compared to the more conventional blurred barriers utilized in The Oyster Princess. Even more than those in the earlier film, The Wildcat’s masks isolate their images in space.

While the above catalogue of shapes provides an indication of the variety and even absurdity of the technique’s employment in The Wildcat, this nevertheless incomplete list does not fully convey its ubiquity. Indeed, there is not a single frame in the above passage (and less than a half-dozen in the first twenty minute reel) that does not adopt the strategy. Lubitsch does not simply mask the intimate exchanges between Alexis and Rischka, for instance, creating an aesthetic that reads as almost proto-televisual in its preponderance of tight framings that drastically reduce the amount of information contained in the image, but in fact uses this strategy in his depictions of crowds, as during the send-off of Alexis. Here, the serpentine and eye-shaped masks create a path down which the storming women charge upon learning of Alexis’s departure. In other words they consistently serve to focus our attention in some segment (often centered) of the screen, whether it is one or many figures. The mask reduces superfluous visual information.

Of course, their distinctive, varied shapes and ubiquitous deployment nonetheless distract from our spectatorship of the film’s narrative, calling attention rather to the filmmaker’s production of artifice. We pay as much attention to the images’ frames, perhaps even more from our latter-day vantage, as we do to what they frame and contain. The surprise generated by Lubitsch’s ever-proliferating set of forms becomes an object of attention in its own right. It is a signifier of the film’s formal self-consciousness; The Wildcat knows that it is cinema. Indeed, these figures are not simply manifestations of the film’s peculiar aesthetic but are subject matter in their own right. The Wildcat is in no small measure about its distinctive aesthetic.

Likewise, Lubitsch extends his emphasis on filmic artifice to the film’s decors which later compensate for a de-emphasis on the former masking technique. A noteworthy example of this shift to setting occurs with Alexis’s drunken sobbing after he has been called upon to prepare for his wedding to mistress of the fortress. The scene opens with a more conventional mask of Alexis (the boundaries of the masking blurred as in The Oyster Princess) as again he cries uncontrollably. Lubitsch dissolves to a long shot of the gentleman rocking on an enormous ‘c-shaped’ rocking horse. In the rear we see more of the ‘c’ motif flanking the ascending staircase behind, as well as in the deep distance where three free-standing figures are included. A second example, visible during Rischka and company’s earlier illegal entry into the fortress highlights a space in which castle turrets, free-standing ‘s-shaped’ architectural elements, and sculpted canons all serve as design motifs. Together these forms not only privilege set design – as in the archetypal Weimar picture (where in many instances this focus acts to externalize interiority) – but additionally extend this trope beyond any representational imperative, disassociating signifier from signified.

Nonetheless, The Wildcat should not be viewed as simple design for its own sake, but rather as hyperbole or even parody due in no small measure to their variably childish (the gingerbread fortress, replete with giant rocking horse) and profane (the almond-shaped mask reads as vaginal) valences. The Wildcat’s masks and set design mocks the elevated position of art design in Weimar cinema, creating an artifice-laden diegetic world that has few parallels even within Germany’s Expressionist cycle. Lubitsch parodies the cinema of his age.

The Filmmaker’s Hand in The Doll

If The Wildcat makes its spectator conscious of its facture through its near boundless excesses of film form, the director’s earlier Die Puppe (The Doll, 1919) explicitly conveys this theme in its incipient passage, where Lubitsch himself is presented with a miniature of the film’s set. In this opening, we see the director unpacking a toy box, first placing its wedge-shaped landscape atop a table. He then attaches a cabin, trees, a white background and even a small bench to the base. After placing a pair of wooden dolls in the house, Lubitsch cuts for the first time to a full-size facsimile of the toy set with the two human figures stepping out of the cabin. As such, Lubitsch immediately contextualizes the film as a product of his manipulation. He has set up – organized or even blocked – the space in which the narrative will proceed. Likewise, the identification of the film’s human subjects as inanimate objects, dolls, subject to a human manipulator allegorizes the subsequent relationship between filmmaker and film actor. Lubitsch is the proverbial puppet master and his actors’ marionettes. They will remain subject to his unseen hand – from the film’s second shot where the narrative dissolves into the fictional world supplied by the director in the picture’s first shot.

The Doll’s allegorical subject is extended into the film’s principle narrative motif: namely of Ossi Oswalda’s masquerade as a life-size doll. Oswalda plays the daughter Ossi of doll-maker Hilarius (Janson). Hilarius is charged with making a life-sized doll for bachelor Lancelot (Hermann Thimig), who wishes to persuade his family that he has wed. Unknown to either Hilarius or Lancelot, the doll-maker’s randy young apprentice (Gerhard Ritterband) breaks the doll-maker’s perfect copy of his daughter, prompting its model Ossi to cover for the guilty party – by inhabiting the role of inanimate object. Helpfully, the doll itself is not lifeless but is rather controlled by a rear control panel through which the figure can be manipulated to perform a limited number of actions (such as “dancing” or “greeting”) thereby making Ossi’s masquerade all the more plausible when she is compelled to move. Moreover, with Ossi performing the role of doll, we retrospectively view the film’s prologue as stipulating the director’s control over his actors as he manipulates the inanimate objects in this opening scene. Likewise, Lancelot becomes Lubitsch’s surrogate in the narrative as he operates the figure within the narrative, dictating his human figure’s movements and behaviors just as The Doll’s director maintains a similar agency both in the opening and over the narrative in total.

The film’s first sequence also provides the picture’s (and Lubitsch’s, in his German phase specifically) characteristic artifice: this artificiality is typified by the film’s set design, which includes paper trees and a cut-out moon, as well as the film’s costuming – Lubitsch on one occasion even replaces a horse with two persons under a black sheet. Similarly, The Doll again relies on both a frontal, theatrical mise-en-scène and also on direct address. The young apprentice in particular performs the same knowing role as Josef in The Oyster Princess, periodically looking into and talking directly to the camera. Lastly, The Doll prefigures The Wildcat and its unparalleled utilization of masks with a set of shots that first present a pair of mouths in matching oval masks and then a frame filled with scores of the image adopting the same subject. As such, Lubitsch communicates the scene’s panoply of voices, just as a mask in the prior Oyster Princess figured the rhythm channeled by his dancing figures through three horizontal masks of shuffling feet. In each of these earlier two usages, therefore, the masks allow for multiple images to share the same screen, emphasizing the content’s scope through their repetitions. Comparatively, The Wildcat presents the form as a figure of decadence.

Lubitsch’s Reluctant Bachelor Cycle

The Doll also reproduces a distinctive story-arc that many of Lubitsch’s extant German comedies contain: that of an initially reluctant bachelor who falls in love with an apparently unattainable woman, the latter of whom proves either attainable or in multiple instances already married to the said groom. The earliest of the three comedies discussed heretofore, The Oyster Princess, features Nucki as the hesitant gentleman who professes his lack of interest in marrying before sending Josef in his place to meet his potential bride. Josef marries Ossi under Nucki’s name, thereby wedding the Prince to the ‘Oyster Princess.’ This latter pair meets during a meeting of women concerned with the pestilence of “dipsomania” into which the handsome Prince stumbles dead drunk. They presently fall for one another with the sober Ossi taking Nucki to her bedroom. Once there, they lament that fact that she is married; Josef however interrupts the pair, believing that she is cheating on him. Seeing that the other man is her actual husband, Josef, beset by laughter, reveals the truth. The reluctant bachelor, much to his pleasure, has been married without his knowledge – to the woman with whom he has fallen in love.

The same narrative effectively recurs in The Doll with Lancelot serving in the role of the reluctant bachelor. In this work, the Baron of Chanterelle (Max Kronert), in order that his lineage is maintained, requests that all maidens present themselves so that his nephew Lancelot can choose a bride. Learning that he will be compelled to marry, effete mother’s boy Lancelot breaks into tears. Consequently, the Baron’s nephew successfully schemes to pass off Hilarius’s life-sized doll as his bride – particularly as Lancelot’s supposedly inanimate wife is in fact the object’s real life model Ossi (though again this is not a fact known by Lancelot). Subsequently, Lancelot professes his wish that Ossi was real and then dreams that she is; Ossi witnesses an outward, involuntary expression of his subconscious desire and kisses the young man in his sleep. When he wakes, Lancelot finds Ossi on the edge of his bed; the latter discloses her true identity. As such, Lancelot, like Nucki before him, learns that he is married to the unattainable object of his desire (in this case, inanimate rather than married) while sharing a bed with his beloved.

The Doll further presents the subtext of a non-normative sexuality, not only with Lancelot’s feelings toward his ‘doll’ but also with those of the monks – again vis-à-vis the inanimate Ossi – in whose monastery Lancelot and his Ossi stay. Analogously, Ich möchte kein Mann sein (I Don’t Want to be a Man, 1918) locates the initial appearance of feelings outside of the conventional heterosexual couple, in its case amid a bourgeoning friendship between the cross-dressing female lead Oswalda and her new male pal. (Ossi had decided to dress as a man following her frustration in not being able to drink, smoke, play cards, etc.) After a night of drinking in a cabaret, the pals leave by carriage, wherein they proceed to kiss in its backseat. Indeed, this image prefigures the closing shots of both Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living, where the picture’s final framing depicts the film’s reunited couple – or in the case of Design for Living, its trio; in fact, this latter work develops the unconventional sexuality of his earlier period – seated side by side. Following a night in separate rooms, Ossi discloses her female identity as the pair bounce with one another on the young man’s bed. Once more, a seemingly impossible configuration concludes in heterosexual marriage.

The last of the German films discussed, The Wildcat, picks up this theme of the reluctant bachelor, though in its case without the added masquerading figure (and without Oswalda’s participation). In The Wildcat, the film’s male lead Alexis hesitates, and like Lancelot weeps at the prospect of his nuptials. Unlike Lancelot, however, Alexis is in love with another woman, Negri’s Rischka. Alexis’s fiancée (Marga Köhler) is similarly brought to tears with her groom’s lack of interest, leading Rischka to do her best to put off Alexis. She does so by mussing the exceptionally vain Alexis’s hair and spitting champagne in his face. This gesture succeeds in turning Alexis off, and pushing him back into the arms of his fiancée. Likewise, a resigned Negri returns to her betrothed in the mountains and in the process the film’s distinctively melancholic ending has been secured. Fidelity has been maintained, but at the cost of potential happiness.

Epistemological Crises in Lubitsch’s Hollywood Period

In the year between The Wildcat and the director’s first two Hollywood pictures, Rosita (1923) and The Marriage Circle (released in February 1924), Lubitsch both left his adopted Germany for the United States and was married for the first of two times (to German Leni Sonnet Kraus). (23) This latter detail provides a partial context for Lubitsch’s shift away from his German comedies depicting the formation of the couple to those of his American years that famously treated the subject of marital infidelity. While the director’s first American picture Rosita presents its heroine as unmarried at the film’s start, the familiar Lubitsch template of a marriage challenged by the potential for infidelity commences with The Marriage Circle and its “ideal” marriage between Charlotte (Florence Vidor) and her husband Dr. Franz Braun (Monte Blue). When Dr. Braun unwittingly responds to a fake house call from Charlotte’s friend Mizzi (Marie Prevost), he is spotted by the woman’s husband, Dr. Stock (Adolphe Menjou), with Mizzi’s hand around his wrist. A second misunderstanding occurs when Dr. Mueller (Creighton Hale), an admirer of Charlotte, sees a woman’s arms wrapped around Braun (again it is Mizzi hugging the doctor against his will). When Mueller spots Charlotte in the waiting room, he assumes that his partner is committing an affair, though he later promises to say nothing to Charlotte. In both instances, visual evidence is misconstrued, as will occur again shortly when Charlotte sees her husband changing placards at a dinner party so as not to sit by Mizzi (which Mrs. Braun falsely reads as her husband conspiring to sit by another woman). This strategy of misconstruing gestures, in fact, will be renewed throughout The Marriage Circle, forcing the Brauns’ union to the brink of collapse.

Lady Windermere’s Fan repeats this narrative, beginning with Lord Darlington’s (Ronald Coleman) spotting of a letter addressed from a woman to Lord Windermere (Bert Lytell). Like Adolphe Menjou’s character in The Marriage Circle, Darlington has romantic designs on the eponymous Lady Windermere (May McAvoy). Eventually Darlington imports his suspicions to Lady Windermere, instructing the latter to inspect her husband’s checkbook for signs of his relationship to the other woman, Mrs. Erlynne (Irene Rich), who unknown to either is the Lady’s long-separated mother. After seeing Erlynne kissing a gentleman whom she wrongly assumes is her husband, Lady Windermere goes to Darlington; the latter’s mother finds a letter explaining her reasons and follows the Lady to the gentleman’s home. There, she pleads with the younger woman not to ruin her life as she once did, and thereafter, following the discovery of Windermere’s fan in Darlington’s parlor by Lord Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne’s present suitor, Mrs. Erlynne spoils her chance at happiness to save her daughter’s reputation and her marriage by claiming that she mistakenly grabbed the object. Consequently, marriages and ultimate happiness is restored, but at the cost of an innocent woman’s future. Much is not only at stake but is sacrificed further in Lubitsch’s latter masterpiece. Like The Wildcat, not everyone in the director’s films gets their happy ending.

Moreover, each text challenges the ontological assumptions of the medium in which they are presented. Namely, these are two films in which the act of vision, the lone sense upon which the silent cinema is constructed, is revealed to be an inadequate source of knowledge. Again, each picture builds its narrative around the misreading of visual evidence: Mizzi’s grasp of Dr. Braun’s wrist does not entail that they are having an affair – though it could; neither Lord Windermere’s possession of a letter from Mrs. Erlynne nor even his check blank to the same woman requires that they are a couple (though once again it might mean exactly this). The point is that visual evidence – the image, the very material of cinema – is shown to be inadequate or incomplete. One cannot know only by seeing. Appearances are often deceiving.

Consequently, it can be argued The Marriage Circle and Lady Windermere’s Fan extend the reflexive subject matter of his German-period comedies to the extent that these films focalize on a single component of the medium, much as The Doll illustrates the director’s manipulation of his actors and The Wildcat emphasizes the artifice of Weimar German cinema. Here, the issue again is the efficacy of vision to relay knowledge which is satirized in much the same way that the employment of the mask is lampooned. The epistemological assumption of cinema – that knowledge can be imparted through vision – is refused in Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Marriage Circle alike.

Lubitsch’s Classicization in Lady Windermere’s Fan

Yet, Lubitsch’s meta-cinematic subject in both The Marriage Circle and Lady Windermere’s fan is fully narrativized in a fashion unseen in its most conspicuous German examples, The Doll and The Wildcat. Whereas Lubitsch highlights the reflexive context of the earlier German film in an extra-diegetic prologue and the latter’s filmic subject in part through its non-diegetic masks, the American pictures’ film-themed content is fully subsumed by their narratives; the act of vision, in each instance, is grounded within the diegesis. As such, Lubitsch has also classicized his subjects, to the degree that the “general experience of the classical film” is “diegetic production.” (24)

Furthermore, both of the American films discussed at length also manifest the analytic decoupage editing that marks Hollywood’s group style in its classical period. Whereas this style had been ascendant in the United States from roughly 1917 onward, according to which Bordwell, Thompson and Janet Staiger, its full flowering was not available to German audiences until roughly 1921. (25) Indeed, at the time of Lubitsch’s departure from Berlin, American films had only just begun to reach Germany, following a five-year prohibition against all non-Danish imports. (26) Consequently, Lubitsch’s work throughout the majority of his German period was made before the director became familiar with the system of classical analytic editing that he would later adopt and indeed master in Hollywood. Thus it becomes clear that Lubitsch derived his style from the industries he inhabited, be it theatrical-tableaux style of pre-1921 Weimar cinema or the system of analytic decoupage in post-1917 Hollywood. Lubitsch’s contribution seems never to have been a new language but rather the perfecting of an existing idiom, whether in Germany or later Hollywood.

This achievement is clear in Lady Windermere’s Fan, where from the first Lubitsch demonstrates a markedly different style than his German comedies with their absence of establishing shots, long takes, and frontal framings. From the film’s opening passage, Lubitsch demonstrates his new facility with the norms of Hollywood editing: following a humorous inter-title stating that “Lady Windermere faced the grave problem – of seating her dinner guests,” Lubitsch opens with an establishing shot of a voluminous interior with the woman seated at a desk; the director dissolves to a medium-close-up of the woman arranging her placards; and then to point-of-view close-up as she places Lord Darlington’s carefully beside her own, her fingers softly tapping the folded paper. Cutting back to the woman in the earlier framing, she slowly lifts her eyes, a slight grin overtakes her lips and she shakes her head to herself in disapproval as she reorganizes the name pieces so as not to sit by the gentleman. McAvoy then looks up and mouths “come in,” to which Lubitsch cuts to a side door where a butler enters. The latter enters and looks screen left (to McAvoy’s screen right) thereby matching her eye-line as he introduces “Lord Darlington.” Following the title, Lubitsch cuts back to the actress, who consents to his visit, back to the butler closing the door and to Windermere as she stands and ultimately steps away from her desk. After another reverse-angle to Darlington entering, Lubitsch cuts with Darlington’s movement off-frame as the gentleman joins the woman in a tight medium two-shot. He shakes her hand and Lubitsch cuts in to a close-up of their lingering handshake before cutting to a close-up of Coleman looking left and pulling McAvoy’s hand to his mouth. We then see her pull it back before Lubitsch reverses to the Lady looking right with a solemn expression.

Collectively, this opening passage illustrates Lubitsch’s thorough assimilation of classical decoupage and its system of establishing shots, cut-ins, eye-line matches and so forth. It likewise demonstrates the greater subtly that Lubitsch’s performances will manifest in Hollywood, emphasizing a single glance or gesture (often in close-up) to convey the character’s precise psychology, rather than the broad hysterics of Negri and Oswalda. Lubitsch had gained refinement with his trans-Atlantic crossing.

Of course, this focalization on the look or action is embedded in a narrative that problematizes the act of interpretation. Yet as spectators we remain aware continually of the facts obscured by the characters’ limited knowledge. We are flattered with the truth when for instance Lubitsch follows Lady Windermere’s point-of-view of Erlynne receiving a kiss from a man behind a hedge with a reverse angle disclosing the man’s identity as her aged suitor rather than Lord Windermere. In this case Lubitsch inscribes both the fiction’s reality and how his heroine has misinterpreted the incident. We are granted this superior position in order to confront the possibility that happiness could be lost for nothing, for a misunderstanding.


Retrospectively, it is this theme of misunderstanding that replays itself throughout the silent Lubitsch’s comedies: in The Oyster Princess, the formation of the couple is prevented by their prior (unwitting) marriage; in The Doll, it is the mistaken belief that the girl is inanimate; in I Don’t Want to be a Man, it is that she is a man; while in the director’s American comedies, the couple, already formed, is threatened by a misinterpreted infidelity. Whereas the German comedies emphasize the possibility that happiness might be prevented chiefly in their closing scenes – shot on one of the characters’ beds – the American films distend this theme, making it the narrative’s primary concern. In other words, there occurs a shift in emphasis rather than of theme between his German and American silent comedies.

The lone comic exception to the theme of misunderstanding is the director’s The Wildcat, where the formations of the couples occur along lines different from those encouraged by the narrative. Then again, to the extent that “a poignant sadness infiltrates” The Wildcat’s “gayest moments,” namely of the union of each couple, the director’s 1921 comedy demonstrates the precise equation in which Andrew Sarris locates the famed “Lubitsch touch.” (27) In other words, The Wildcat is equally central to the emotive dimension of the director’s latter work, as his other German comedies are to Lubitsch’s pattern of misunderstanding (which he continues through such masterpieces as 1940s The Shop Around the Corner). In The Marriage Circle and Lady Windermere’s Fan we have both the aforesaid narrative structure and moments of genuine pathos. Likewise, The Wildcat alongside the director’s The Doll, is paradigmatic of Lubitsch’s reflexive concerns that are again classicized in the American films.

In sum, Lubitsch’s German period, when read in light of his American films’ narrative emphases become key precursors to his later film art. Far from anomalous they emerge as central to the filmmaker’s career-long preoccupations. Lubitsch was, in other words, an auteur who stands at the fore of both Weimar and Hollywood cinema, not only inhabiting but indeed perfecting their idioms through a consistent set of comic strategies. Lubitsch was Lubitsch far before he was credited as such. The true Lubitsch was not an ‘animator of history,’ the filmmaker who had ascended to the top of the German industry; he was a poet of comic misunderstanding and the threat of unhappiness – the Lubitsch of Lady Windermere’s Fan, Trouble in Paradise and The Shop Around the Corner is the Lubitsch of The Oyster Princess, The Doll and The Wildcat.


  1. Kristin Thompson, Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood: German and American Film after World War (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005), 12.
  2. Thomas Elsaesser, “Ernst Lubitsch” in The Oxford History of World Cinema, ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 184.
  3. Thompson, 30.
  4. Ibid., 31.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Sabine Hake, Passions and Deceptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), 122.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Originally quoted in Lewis Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film: A Critical Theory (New York: Teachers College, 1968), 305. Ibid.
  11. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1968), 67.
  12. In Sight & Sound’s 2002 poll of the “top ten films of all-time,” Lang’s German films (specifically M and Metropolis) received 19 citations to 5 for the American films (one each for five different films, signaling a complete lack of consensus). Lubitsch, on the other hand, received 9 citations for 5 films, all of which were American pictures of the sound era. The latter’s leading vote getter was Trouble in Paradise (1932) with three – all from critics rather than directors. (http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/topten/poll/list.php?list=films.)
  13. Sarris, 67.
  14. Elsaesser, 184.
  15. Ibid., 185.
  16. David Bordwell, “Lady Windermere’s Fan” in Film: The Critics’ Choice, ed. Geoff Andrew (New York: Billboard Books, 2001), 40.
  17. Thompson’s emphasis, including her discussion of the director’s spectatorial manipulation, focuses on the director’s historical works and his collaborations with Pola Negri (including The Eyes of the Mummy Ma and Carmen, both 1918) rather than his Weimar comedies – before moving to a discussion of the director’s early Hollywood output. Thompson, 71-90
  18. Tom Gunning notes that “the recurring look at the camera by actors… [was] later perceived as spoiling the realistic illusion of the cinema.” Gunning, “The Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde” reprinted in The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, ed. Wanda Strauven (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), 380.
  19. For a detailed discussion of this strategy see figures 6.58-6.70 in Bordwell, On the History of Film Style (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997), 189-191.
  20. A useful overview is contained in Bordwell and Thompson’s Film Art discussion of continuity editing in The Maltese Falcon, where they identify this system’s key figures as establishing and reestablishing shots, eye-line matches and matches on action, shot/reverse-shot editing patterns and the maintenance of a single axis of action. Film Art: An Introduction, eighth edition (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008), 234-8.
  21. As Noël Burch has put it, “the secret of the maximization of the diegetic process is the spectator’s invulnerability.” Burch, “Narrative/Diegesis – Thresholds, Limits: Noël Burch Questions the Centrality of Narrative to the Experience of Film” in Screen 23 (2), (July/August 1982), 24.
  22. Elsaesser argues that The Oyster Princess is in fact a “burlesque spoof of popular operetta.” Elsaesser, 184.
  23. Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 84.
  24. Burch, 16.
  25. Originally in Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985); see also Bordwell, “Happy birthday!, classical cinema”: http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=1779.
  26. Thompson, 13, 47.
  27. Sarris, 66.

About The Author

Michael J. Anderson is a joint PhD candidate in Film Studies and the History of Art at Yale University, where he is doing his dissertation on the early films of Howard Hawks. In the past, he has written Cinémathèque Annotations on Hawks’ Tiger Shark and Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm. He is also the proprietor of the film weblogs Tativille and Ten Best Films.

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