New York Review of Books
June 1, 2017
Lubitsch: I heard the name long before I ever saw one of his movies. Adults whose movie-going memories went back to the Twenties or Thirties savored the texture of its syllables, as if it named a circle of delight to which I had not yet been admitted. It was a delight perhaps beyond recapture, enmeshed as it was with nostalgia for a vanished world, steeped in champagne and the melodies of cabaret violinists. “The world he celebrated,” Andrew Sarris wrote in 1968, “had died—even before he did—everywhere except in his own memory.” The Ernst Lubitsch retrospective about to unfold at Film Forum (June 2–15) will offer a most welcome occasion to gauge its dimensions and sample Lubitsch’s very particular pleasures. He offers a parallel domain of buoyant elegance, a theater of free-floating desire and inextinguishable humor ingeniously stitched together out of the fabric of Austrian operettas and French farces and the plot devices of a hundred forgotten Hungarian plays, flavored by delicate irony and risqué innuendo, where sex is everywhere but just out of sight behind discreetly closed doors, constantly implied in what is never quite stated.
The world conjured by Lubitsch had vanished all the more thoroughly for having never altogether existed to begin with, except as filtered through the imagination and observations of a Berlin Jew, a tailor’s son, with a passion for every form of theatricality and a genius for comic invention. A member of Max Reinhardt’s company at nineteen, he moved on to writing and directing short film comedies in which he also starred. He experimented constantly in early comedies like the grotesquely satirical The Oyster Princess (1919) and the visually audacious The Mountain Cat (1921), with its shape-shifting screen formats, but it was his lavish historical epics Madame DuBarry (1919) and Anna Boleyn (1920) that brought him worldwide celebrity. By 1922 he was in Hollywood where he reinvented himself for American audiences as the purveyor of a “Continental” style steeped in civilized suggestiveness with silent comedies of marriage and infidelity like The Marriage Circle (1924) and So This Is Paris (1926).
He created not only a style but a place, his imaginary homeland: that paradise of sophistication disguised as Paris, Vienna, Budapest, the operetta kingdom of Marshovia, or even eventually as the Gay Nineties American Neverland of Heaven Can Wait (1943). We are always looking back toward some long-lost capital city of joy. In Lubitsch’s films memory is constantly being invoked—his characters are forever dwelling on cherished first encounters, unforgettable honeymoon excursions, the minutiae of tiny freshly recalled episodes that encapsulate the deepest of feelings—but it is always an open question whether these memories are not flights of invention, decorating and orchestrating an exquisite counterlife. Those flourishes—magic feats performed in full view of the audience—become something like a companionable accompaniment, enriching the action with deeper layers of joking and commentary.