Ernst Lubitsch: 10 essential films

From To Be or Not to Be to The Shop around the Corner, here are 10 places to discover the legendary ‘Lubitsch touch’ of one of old Hollywood’s greatest directors.

David Parkinson
Updated:

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Of all those to make the transition from silent to talking pictures, none did it with more elegance and erudition than Ernst Lubitsch. Indeed, you would need top 10s covering the periods 1914-28 and 1929-48 to do full justice to his achievement and include such items as the mockingly satirical Anna Boleyn (1920), the deceptively incisive Lady Windermere’s Fan (1926), the scandalously underrated Broken Lullaby (1932) and the knowingly quirky Cluny Brown (1946).

Arriving in Hollywood from Berlin in 1922 having helped revitalise German cinema after the Great War, Lubitsch became a studio insider who refused to abide by the rules. On presenting him with an honorary Academy Award in 1947, fellow director Mervyn LeRoy commended this “master of innuendo” on his “adult mind and a hatred of saying things the obvious way”.

Billy Wilder had a sign in his office that read: “How would Lubitsch do it?” But there was much more to this enduringly influential filmmaker than the fabled ‘Lubitsch touch’.

Madame DuBarry (1919)

Madame DuBarry (1919)

Having initially specialised in comedies with a Jewish slapstick flavour, Ernst Lubitsch became “the great humaniser of history” with Madame DuBarry and Anna Boleyn. Designed to raise Weimar spirits by poking fun at the victors of the Great War, these were less historical recreations than costume satires.

Pola Negri’s Jeanne is an 18th-century it girl, who inflames the passions of Louis XV (Emil Jannings) and shocks stuffy courtiers and prudish peasants alike with her appetite for pleasure. Released the same year as his dark fable The Doll and the capitalist critique The Oyster Princess, this saucy saga fuelled the conviction that Lubitsch was “the Griffith of Europe”.

The Marriage Circle (1924)

The Marriage Circle (1924)

When his much-vaunted Hollywood partnership with actor Mary Pickford ended after Rosita (1923), Lubitsch decamped to Warners. Taking cues from Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (1923), with The Marriage Circle he gazumped Cecil B. DeMille and Erich von Stroheim as Hollywood’s leading purveyor of pictures lampooning the bourgeoisie, particularly their preoccupation with sex and status.

Adapted from Lothar Schmidt’s play Only a Dream, this comedy of marital errors centres on the misapprehensions of three doctors and two wives. Lubitsch slows the farce to allow the characters to betray their emotions with the slightest expressions and gestures. Enamoured of the material, he revisited it in One Hour with You (1932).

So This Is Paris (1926)

So This Is Paris (1926)

Having refined his celebrated ‘touch’ in Forbidden Paradise (1924) and Kiss Me Again (1925), Lubitsch opted for a little optical exuberance in this exquisite marriage comedy. He had previously filmed Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy’s play Reveillon as The Merry Jail in 1917. But So This Is Paris expands the narrative to explore the temptations facing doctor Monte Blue, his daydreaming wife Patsy Ruth Miller and their dance-team neighbours.

Lubitsch litters the action with Freudian gags, but his masterstroke is the Artists Ball sequence, in which he employs superimposition and kaleidoscopic effects to convey the intoxicated exhilaration of the revellers.

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927)

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927)

Having acted in a 1915 take on Wilhelm Meyer-Förster’s novel, Karl Heinrich, Erich von Stroheim was slated to direct this lavish MGM adaptation as a follow-up to The Merry Widow (1925). However, production chief Irving Thalberg needed a project for the newly arrived Lubitsch and felt he would take better care of fiancée Norma Shearer as Kathi the barmaid.

In fact, Lubitsch fell out with Shearer and co-star Ramon Novarro while producing this most musical of silents. But, keeping his camera moving and making evocative use of the symbol-strewn sets, he slipped between intimate details and rousing set-pieces with peerless insight, wit and grace.

The Love Parade (1929)

The Love Parade (1929)

Fresh from earning his first Oscar nomination with The Patriot (1928) and experimenting with synchronous sound on Eternal Love (1929), Lubitsch transformed the nascent screen musical with this inspired Ruritanian romance. Blending operetta and revue, The Love Parade has Victor Schertzinger and Clifford Grey’s songs emerging organically from the storyline, allowing Jeanette MacDonald’s dutiful queen and Maurice Chevalier’s playboy consort to express their emotions through the lyrics.

Jean Cocteau dubbed it “a Lubitsch miracle”, and the director would continue to impart his audiovisual magic on the genre in Monte Carlo (1930), The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), One Hour with You (1932) and The Merry Widow (1934).

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Owing more to the escapades of notorious Romanian swindler Georges Manolescu than László Aladár’s source play The Honest Finder, this screwball masterclass is the embodiment of the ‘Lubitsch touch’. Samson Raphaelson’s dialogue crackles with cynical wit, as thieves Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins circle wealthy victim Kay Francis. But it’s the tension between what is heard and seen that makes this so innovatively engrossing, as Lubitsch concocts sophisticatedly subversive gags with garbage-collecting gondolas, neon signs, opera scores and silhouettes on bedspreads.

Yet, for all the urbanity of the performances and the elegance of the art deco sets, this is a Depression-era class study about escaping the ranks of the ‘nouveau poor’.

Ninotchka (1939)

Ninotchka (1939)

The increased censorship of Hollywood’s Production Code together with a new management role at Paramount temporarily sapped Lubitsch’s creative energy in the mid-1930s. Nevertheless, he still managed to produce such gems as Design for Living (1933), Angel (1937) and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) before returning to peak form with this acute blend of romantic comedy and political satire, which was promoted with the iconic tagline, “Garbo Laughs!”

Inheriting the project from George Cukor, Lubitsch found Greta Garbo a difficult collaborator, and she considered him vulgar. Yet he found a coquettish charm beneath her trademark impassivity that made her severe Soviet commissar’s discovery of pleasure on falling for a French aristocrat all the more beguiling.

The Shop around the Corner (1940)

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Echoing the nostalgic yearning for his tailor father’s Berlin shop that had informed his directorial breakthrough, Schuhpalast Pinkus (1916), this disarmingly deep and dark reworking of Miklós László’s play Parfumerie was also influenced by Lubitsch’s cuckolding by actor and screenwriter Hanns Kräly, as well as his desire for Europe to return to its pre-war status quo.

So while the epistolary romance between humble clerks James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan takes centre stage, Lubitsch is more interested in the ambience of Matuschek & Company, the Budapest leather goods store created on a Hollywood backlot by MGM art director Cedric Gibbons. The setting enabled Lubitsch to discuss the contentious themes of class and community within the confines of a romantic comedy.  

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Has there been a more potent piece of cinematic revenge than this riposte to images of Lubitsch being used in the invidious propaganda film, The Eternal Jew (1940)? Indeed, he even slips a snippet of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) into this treatise on masquerade and resistance.

Centring on the capers of a Warsaw theatre company trapped between freedom fighters and the Gestapo, To Be or Not to Be’s story is so gleefully convoluted that François Truffaut claimed it was impossible to follow. Contemporary critics were shocked by the brazen humour, but they overlooked the fact that Lubitsch was also exposing the Hollywood conventions that prevented him from depicting the realities facing occupied Europe.

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

As the war gave Hollywood comedy a sharper edge, Lubitsch joined 20th Century-Fox and embraced Technicolor Americana in this biopic of a nobody, which epitomises the non-judgemental optimism of his work.

In some ways, Heaven Can Wait can be seen as a reproach to US isolationism, as Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) reflects on seven decades of oblivious miscreancy from the reception hall of hell. But, in reworking László Bús-Fekete’s play Birthdays, the ailing Lubitsch uses this flashbacking chronicle of “a man only interested in good living with no aim of accomplishing anything or doing anything noble” to lament the transience of existence.

Read more

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.