Why this might not seem so easy
“How would Lubitsch do it?” read the sign that hung over Billy Wilder’s writing desk. He’d had it made so that he could have something to aspire to, to remind him of the great friend and mentor who almost single-handedly invented both the big screen romantic comedy and the musical. No one did it quite like Ernst Lubitsch, and Wilder wasn’t the only acolyte to stand in the shadow of the man known as the master’s master.
Hitchcock called him “a man of pure cinema,” while Orson Welles described his talent and originality as “stupefying”. For Jean Renoir, he “invented modern Hollywood”. Yasujiro Ozu and Douglas Sirk were super-fans, and François Truffaut, in the title of his famous Cahiers du cinéma essay, described him as a “prince”.
Born in Berlin in 1892, Lubitsch began his career as an actor and director in the silent era, having trained for the stage under the great impresario Max Reinhardt. He’s best remembered today for the dazzlingly elegant serio-comedies he made in Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s, films that ran rings around the censors with their adventurously modern approach to sexual relationships and gender roles, and their ingenious solutions to production code mandates. “This man was so strong,” said Renoir, “that when he was asked by Hollywood to work there, he not only didn’t lose his Berlin style, but he converted the Hollywood industry to his own way of expression.”
It’s impossible to overstate the influence of what came to be known as the ‘Lubitsch touch’ on Hollywood filmmaking. But what is this ‘touch’, and what makes it so singularly Lubitschean?
The best place to start – Trouble in Paradise
“Anyone who knows what it means already knows Lubitsch, and for someone who doesn’t know Lubitsch, the phrase explains little,” writes critic Kristen Thompson of the ‘Lubitsch touch’ in her book Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood. And yet, the term is unavoidable. It was a defining part of the filmmaker’s public persona, used to advertise his films in much the same way that ‘the master of suspense’ became synonymous with Hitchcock.
These little moments of directorial magic defy easy definition. They’re sleights of hand that don’t exist in dialogue or in the action descriptions of a screenplay. Highly sophisticated, and often risqué in their innuendo, these ineffable bits of ‘business’ work to inform character and relationships in purely cinematic terms, whether through action, staging or an incisively timed cut or ellipsis. While often in service of a gag, the Lubitsch touch can find transcendence in a dramatic beat that, in lesser hands, might have remained serviceably pedestrian.
The best way to understand what it means is to see them in action, and there’s no better place to start than with Trouble in Paradise (1932), in which one touch breathlessly follows another. Like many of his films, it centres on a love triangle, in this instance between a pair of crooks (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins) and their patsy (Kay Francis). This is Lubitsch at his stylistic peak, his craftsmanship and dramatic sensibilities in fleet-footed service of a perfectly measured cocktail of comedy, sentiment and cynicism. It exemplifies the Lubitsch worldview: endlessly teasing and morally complex, yet boundless in its humanity and generosity, while effervescent in its sexual candour.
It may not quite be ground zero for the Hollywood romantic comedy (his 1924 film The Marriage Circle gets closer to that accolade), but its influence on the genre would be profound.
What to watch next
The great director’s filmography is clearly demarcated into its constituent eras, and given that a bad Lubitsch film is something of a rarity, it’s worth sampling a film or two from each period in his career.
If you want to see him at work as an actor, two of his earliest films are readily available in Shoe Palace Pinkus (1916) and Als ich tot war (1916). The best of Lubitsch’s German silents are contained in Eureka’s six-film set, Lubitsch in Berlin. I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918) is an uproarious gender-bending comedy that still feels breathtakingly modern, and provides one of the earliest examples of the filmmaker’s keen eye for directing actresses. Pola Negri, Jeanette MacDonald, Miriam Hopkins and Greta Garbo would all give some of their best performances in Lubitsch films. The magnificent Ossi Oswalda was one of his first stars, and would return for two of his greatest German silents in The Oyster Princess (1919) and The Doll (1919).
By 1923, Lubitsch was in Hollywood, brought over by Mary Pickford for the melodramatic spectacle Rosita. His American silents are harder to see these days, but contain a trio of masterpieces in The Marriage Circle (1924), Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925) and the atypical drama The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927). Lady Windermere is a marvel of screen adaptation, jettisoning nearly all of Oscar Wilde’s dialogue for a silent exemplification of what Hitchcock called pure cinema. The Marriage Circle is better still, staging a complex love triangle that stands among his greatest achievements as a filmmaker.
Lubitsch took the arrival of sound in his stride, using dialogue as merely another tool to complicate his stylistic magic. Revelling in its artifice, The Love Parade (1929) accelerated the screen musical, integrating songs with narrative in a way that would prove revolutionary. He’d go on to make a further four musicals with Maurice Chevalier, culminating with the glorious The Merry Widow in 1934.
If you enjoyed Trouble in Paradise, seek out Design for Living (1933), the Noël Coward adaptation that took sexual adventure to such extremes it was denied a re-release when the censorious Hays Code took effect in 1934.
Lubitsch’s late-period ran for almost a decade, until his death in 1947 during production on That Lady in Ermine (1948), and contains some of his most beloved classics. Ninotchka (1939), starring Greta Garbo, is one of the great golden age romantic comedies, while Heaven Can Wait (1943) carries huge The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) energy in its elliptical telling of an entire life through changing eras. A heart-rending tale of love, loss and regret, it contains some of Lubitsch’s most movingly elegiac touches.
Lubitsch’s style come the 1940s is less demonstrative than that of previous decades, and is perhaps exemplified in two masterpieces: The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and To Be or Not to Be (1942). The former is a Christmas classic starring James Stewart, a melancholy comedy set in pre-war Budapest. So generous in its humanity, and acute in its social and economic context, it’s easy to see the influence of Lubitsch on Ozu.
Not content with inaugurating the romantic comedy and the musical, Lubitsch effectively invented the black comedy with To Be or Not to Be. The filmmaker had been stripped of his German citizenship by the Nazi party in 1935, and clips of him had featured prominently in Goebbels’ antisemitic propaganda film The Eternal Jew (1940). His comic masterpiece was an audacious assault on fascism set during the occupation of Poland.
Where not to start
You might not think from watching his high society comedies that Lubitsch was once thought of as Germany’s answer to D.W. Griffith, but it was his spectacles that caught the eye of Hollywood. With the currency in decline, these vast productions could be made on the cheap, and certainly gave the American studios a run for their money. They don’t, on the whole, represent Lubitsch at his best, but for sheer scale head for The Loves of Pharaoh (1922), which employs thousands of extras in its crowd and battle scenes.
Sumurun (1920) and Henry VIII drama Anna Boleyn (1920) are included in the Lubitsch in Berlin set, but for the best of the spectacle films, head for Eureka’s standalone release of Madame DuBarry (1919), which sees Pola Negri and Emil Jannings in a French revolutionary romp of impressive magnitude. More than any of the other spectacle films, it speaks to John Ford’s comment on this inimitable filmmaker’s death: “None of us thought we were making anything but entertainment … Only Ernst Lubitsch knew we were making art.”