Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood (2006)

2010 #10
Robert Fischer | 109 mins | DVD

Ernst Lubitsch in BerlinPart biography, part making-of, part analytical retrospective, Robert Fischer’s documentary does what it says on the tin: tells the story of the life and work of actor/director Ernst Lubitsch from his formative years, living on Schönhauser Allee in Berlin, to when he made the move to America in the early 1920s.

Fischer devotes a large amount of time to Lubitsch’s early years — the life he had growing up, his years as a stage actor, and how he eventually shifted into becoming a film actor — attempting not only to tell the story of his upbringing, but to draw (or leave the viewer to draw) parallels with the films Lubitsch would go on to make. A use of ‘family history’ first- and second-hand accounts and analysis from authors, critics and admirers strikes a moderate balance here, though those primarily interested in his eventual film work may find it goes on a bit too long.

A lot is also made of (or, at least, implied about) Max Reinhardt’s influence on a young Lubitsch. The film implies Reinhardt had a greater significance generally, but lacks any context about why he was such a momentous figure. In fairness the film isn’t about him, but one feels a minute or two clarifying his importance may have been warranted.

When Lubitsch’s directing career is eventually arrived upon, Fischer uses the same mix of talking heads to cover both the behind-the-scenes story of Lubitsch’s career, spanning a half-dozen or so of his more significant German works, and provide a brief analysis of how they foreshadowed (or didn’t) his future career and what they might reveal about the man and his methods. With such a broad overview no one film is covered in particularly great depth, despite the feature-length running time, though recollections from actors Emil Jannings and Henny Porten provide some film-specific focus.

Illustrated with copious clips and photographs from Lubitsch’s work, the documentary incidentally instills a desire to see more of the director’s early work. Tantalising glimpses of and stories about films such as The Eyes of the Mummy Ma, Carmen, Madame DuBarry, Kohlhiesel’s Daughter and The Loves of Pharaoh all leave one longing they were included in the box set too — though considering the six films already allotted, it’s hardly an oversight that there aren’t even more. As IMDb/Wikipedia seem to suggest none of these are lost, perhaps there’s space for a Volume Two?

Given that I found the documentary interesting, the following score might seem a tad low. Judged in the world of DVD extras, Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin would likely fare better; bumping it up to the world of ‘Proper Films’, however, reduces that somewhat. As much as anything, while I’m sure it’s of interest to the already interested, it’s not compelling enough to warrant viewing by anyone else.

3 out of 5

Read more reviews from Lubitsch in Berlin here.

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