Ernst Lubitsch | 118 mins | DVD | PG
In an age where Henry VIII is young, slim and sometimes irritatingly called “Henry 8”, not to mention more interested in shagging every young girl he can find than in, well, anything else, it’s somewhat refreshing to return to a time when he was always older, fatter and more interested in polishing off a huge slab of meat than seeing his wife. OK, so they call him “Heinrich VIII”, but at least that’s because this production team spoke a different language.
The Tudors may be more interested in political intrigue and sex than slavish historical accuracy, but, in fairness, Anna Boleyn isn’t actually much different. The sex isn’t even explicit in dialogue, never mind explicitly shown, but it’s still the cause of Anne’s downfall; and the political intrigue may handle in 10 seconds what The Tudors spent 10 hours (or more) dragging its way through; but it’s this speediness, not to mention Henry’s girth, that are the very things that also leave historical accuracy by the wayside. But, again like The Tudors, that’s not really the point. Some things never change.
Anna Boleyn is, once again for Lubitsch, a romance; though rather than a “happily ever after” ending it has more of a message. Sweet little Anne Boleyn believes King Henry’s eyes are wandering from his wife because he genuinely loves Anne, so she (eventually) goes along with it. He gets a divorce — if proof were needed that historical accuracy is immaterial, it takes about as long as it would today, skipping over a hugely significant part of British history in a heartbeat — and they get married. Anne fails to provide him with a son, and suddenly his lustful eye is roaming again. All it takes is the (false) accusation of a dalliance in the woods with her ex love and it’s off with her head. Poor Anne.
It’s odd to see Anne Boleyn depicted as such an innocent; a tragic figure caught up in the machinations of Henry — and, indeed, History — rather than the plotting, ultimately deserving temptress we’re used to from British (co-)productions. She’s every inch the victim, falling foul of Henry’s appetites — both when he captures her and when he goes after other women in exactly the same we he went for her — and, at the climax, there’s no question she’s being framed. The historical veracity of such a portrayal is, again, suspect. Whether Anne was truly as scheming as she’s commonly depicted, or whether this is the legacy of the nation’s love for Catherine and acceptance of the charges later levelled (or fabricated) against her, I don’t know — my historiography isn’t quite good enough for that I’m afraid — but one suspects she can’t have been as entrapped as suggested here.
On the other hand, Emil Jannings’ Henry is every inch the stereotype, a fat old man gorging himself on food and women, liable to explode with anger at any second. Just because it’s a stereotype doesn’t mean it’s wrong, of course, and Jannings’ performance is a strong one. Henry rages from joyous to furious in a heartbeat, swings from entertained to bored, loving to lustful, and every which way in between. Some of this is conveyed with grand theatrical gestures, but Jannings also pulls much of it off with just his eyes.
Among the rest of the cast, Aud Egede Nissen’s Jane Seymour takes on the typical Anne role as a seductive power-hungry mistress, which is an especially striking comparison to the near-saint recently seen in The Tudors. Ferdinand von Alten’s duplicitous Smeaton, meanwhile, looks and behaves like his surname should be Blackadder.
It’s been asserted that silent films should aspire to use as few intertitles as possible, with none therefore being the ultimate goal. This is clearly a theory Lubitsch never subscribed too. Normally that’s perfectly fine — his intertitles are mostly witty, loaded and never omnipresent. Here, however, there’s an abundance of wordy messages, and while I’m sure they could be worse, they rarely convey anything but plot. Indeed, bar the very occasional instance, the film is devoid of humour.
Lubitsch seems to feel the need to keep himself entertained in other ways, constantly playing with aspect ratio and framing, using dozens of shapes to encircle characters in close up, or isolate a group within a crowd, or just vary his composition with widescreen, tilted widescreen, or a kind of vertical widescreen. And he still knows how to stage a big sequence — the wedding and accompanying riots, packed with hundreds of extras, are quite spectacular. The following dinner scene recalls Die Austernprinzessin with its plethora of guests, waiters and dishes, although it makes for an unfortunate comparison as nothing in Anna Boleyn feels even half as inspired.
Sumurun took a more serious approach than any film thus far in this set, but still had plenty of touches that let you know Lubitsch was behind the camera (not least that he was also in front of it). Aside from some of the choice visual framing devices, or one or two familiar set-ups (the large banquet, four servants helping Henry get dressed), there’s no significant evidence here of Lubitsch’s touch. It’s not a bad film, it’s just not a particularly distinctive one.
Read more reviews from Lubitsch in Berlin here.