Ernst Lubitsch | 64 mins | DVD | PG
From the very start, Die Puppe sets out its stall (literally) as being something a bit special. The first sequence sees director Ernst Lubitsch himself unpack and assemble a doll’s house set and two dolls, which then become life-size and the dolls — now humans — the first characters we meet. It’s a neat framing device, a joke in itself, and some kind of early commentary on the role of a director.
From this point on, Die Puppe is a riot. Yes, some of it is distinctly old fashioned — an early chase scene, for example, sees Lancelot pursued by 40 desperate women, his mother, his uncle and the latter’s servant, back and forth and round in circles in a cartoonish fashion — and yet, even leaving aside allowances for it being 91 years old, there’s something wholly amiable about even these now-familiar proceedings.
And that’s just some of it, because Lubitsch doesn’t pass up any chance for a gag. Take the scene where Hilarius, the doll’s inventor, returns to his workshop to fetch the doll, who at that moment is actually his daughter in disguise. The point of the scene is conveyed — Hilarius accepts the deception. Except he also decides she needs more paint on her lips, which he dutifully applies. Or the pantomime horses that pull a carriage… but rather than ignore them, Lubitsch has the driver have to re-apply one’s tail. And so on. This constant expression of humour, working at every level from intellectual wit down to slapstick tomfoolery, means that even if one element has been done to death in the past near-century, there’ll be several other moments or scenes to compensate.
Even more so than in Ich möchte kein Mann sein, one could easily fill a whole review listing the great bits. Like when Lancelot is initially presented with an array of dolls, like a bizarre early-20th-century brothel with Autons for whores. Or the vulturous relatives, dividing up items while the Baron lies on his deathbed, and having the gall to accuse him of bad planning when they can’t decide who should have a vase that’s promptly broken. Or the broadly satirical monks with their ‘meagre’ meals, unwillingness to share, and incessant greed. And, in the vein of things-you-might-not-expect-from-this-era, there’s a great gag about an instruction manual. It’s a constant array of delights, and, also as in Ich möchte…, nothing outstays its welcome — every sequence is mined for its full comic potential, but Lubitsch wisely moves on before it can become repetitive or stale.
Lubitsch’s playfulness extends to the medium itself. He uses camera masks and wipes to focus on specific areas, breaking free of the 4:3 box to create different compositions, revealing parts of the frame on a delay, illustrating dream sequences, and more. There are ‘special effects’ that one could only achieve with a camera, like Hilarius’ hair changing colour, the balloon-flying sequence, a ghostly dream, and so on. And the irrepressibly cheeky young apprentice, played brilliantly by Gerhard Ritterband, routinely breaks the fourth wall to air his grievances to the audience.
And I haven’t even mentioned Ossi Oswalda, who gives another good comic turn as both the titular doll and her real-life inspiration. In his essay accompanying the Masters of Cinema edition, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky summarises her appeal (some of it, at any rate) so well that I may as well just quote from it: “Her comedy isn’t just funny to watch — it’s inviting, like a friend who cracks a joke and then asks you to tell one too. She begs a like-minded idiocy from the audience.” It is, I think, a point that’s even more applicable to Ich möchte kein Mann sein, but it stands well enough here.
Talking of this specific edition, I understand that Bernard Wrigley’s new score has come under fire from some sources (namely, Sight & Sound, though I’ve yet to read that review myself). Maybe their reviewer has a genuine complaint, but I thought that Wrigley’s score was for the most part perfectly lovely. It’s only flaw is that it often falls silent for a few uncomfortable seconds, reminding the viewer that ‘silent films’ should be anything but. Still, this is as minor a complaint as it sounds.
The Lubitsch in Berlin box set was a complete blind buy for me (as this series of reviews will attest), but these first two films alone easily justify it. Die Puppe, in particular, is simply outstanding.
Read more reviews from Lubitsch in Berlin here.