Ernst Lubitsch | 45 mins | DVD | PG
Ich möchte kein Mann sein is the kind of silent film that might surprise some among a wider film-viewing audience, both in terms of the attitudes prevalent in what is occasionally assumed to be a highly prim era, and, even accepting that it really wasn’t, the things people were prepared to put on film then — the latter due to, I think, the perception of older films as wilfully innocent (a view no doubt influenced by the effect the Hays Code would later have on American movies).
But it’s anything but innocent: young ladies drinking, gambling and smoking, thinly veiled sex references, and multiple passionate — albeit drunken — kisses between two chaps. OK, so one of them’s a women in disguise, but when the truth is revealed at the end and the boy and girl (or, rather, man and girl) get together, one wonders if it’s such a perfect match after all… That it’s all played for laughs may be the key to making it permissible, and it is relentlessly comic. In a brisk 45-minute running time, Lubitsch allows nothing to outstay its welcome. Each little sketch within the narrative moves by as fast as it might today — in all likelihood faster, as the modern penchant seems to be to drag sketches out as long as possible, or at least until it’s stopped being funny. Twice over. This brevity may also be surprising to the uninitiated, refuting the assumption that overacting and labouring the point for an audience less accustomed to the shorthand of film were the order of the day.
Many memorable moments are produced throughout: the hypocritical early criticisms by Ossi’s uncle and governess; the men outside her window, rubbing their stomachs with ‘hunger’ in a shot framed from the waist down, not to mention the way they wave their canes around; similarly, the tailors stretching their tape measures as long as possible to impress our heroine; being squished on the train; the marauding horde of single women; the ‘gay’ kisses… Rarer is the sequence that doesn’t impress or linger in the memory.
Much of this is thanks to the film’s star, Ossi Oswalda. She’s obviously a skilled comedic actress, convincing as both a petulant tomboy and a boyish gent, capable of both drunken stumbling and coy giggling, by turns delightfully rebellious, sweetly put-upon and succinctly joyous. She’s even believable as a man (albeit a boyish one). It’s the kind of performance that’s infectious and makes you want to seek out more of her films (luckily, Lubitsch in Berlin contains two further examples). The rest of the cast fare well around her, particularly Margarete Kupfer as Ossi’s alternately stern and swooning governess.
Unfortunately, I can’t even attempt to put this in the context of the rest of Lubitsch’s work — shamefully, I’d barely heard of him prior to Masters of Cinema’s new set, never mind seen any of his films. MoC’s brand-new essays prove invaluable for me in this respect — immediately, this film’s, provided by Criterion’s Anna Thorngate, provides context of what the perception of Lubitsch’s Berlin work (vs his Hollywood work) is, and how Ich möchte kein Mann sein (amongst others) show this perception to be false — there is, in fact, a direct stylistic line between this and his better-known American films. Maybe when I see them I’ll spot it.
But, really, such knowledge and comparisons are entirely ancillary to one’s enjoyment of Ich möchte kein Mann sein. It’s all round a lot of fun, as well as no doubt offering some points of satire/debate about the differences between the sexes for those interested. Perhaps more pertinently, I can also see it serving as a good introduction to silent film: short, fast and funny, it has the potential to create converts.
Read more reviews from Lubitsch in Berlin here.