In This Article Ernst Lubitsch

  • Introduction
  • Biographies and Reference Works
  • Dossiers and Special Issues of Journals
  • Lubitsch’s Collaborators
  • The German Period
  • German Costume Films
  • Lubitsch as Émigré Director
  • The American Silent Films

Cinema and Media Studies Ernst Lubitsch
by
Ben Brewster, Lea Jacobs
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0202

Introduction

The film director, and some-time actor, Ernst Lubitsch, was born in Berlin in 1892 and died in Los Angeles in 1947. During his lifetime, Lubitsch was a successful, respected, and indeed well-loved Hollywood director. After his death, Lubitsch largely vanished from the horizon for twenty years. His films became unavailable, since few were re-released; many of the most successful, and hence the most obvious candidates for re-release—for example, The Merry Widow (1934), Ninotchka (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940)—were remade, thus forcing his versions out of circulation. When serious revaluation of popular American cinema began in the late 1950s, particularly by the group of critics and filmmakers associated with the Paris film magazine Cahiers du cinéma, Lubitsch’s reputation failed to benefit. His untimely death in 1947 worked against him: most of the directors championed by the Cahiers critics were still producing films and able to give interviews and otherwise promote their work. Moreover, Lubitsch did not make films in the genres these critics favored—the crime melodrama, the thriller, the western. And older objections to the genres he did work in still counted against him among more traditional critics: operetta films were unlikely to find favor in the era of Neorealism and Ingmar Bergman. In the 1960s, Lubitsch’s films began to be preserved and restored by film archivists and screened at film festivals and in specialized venues inspiring renewed critical attention. Nevertheless, the earlier obstacles to positive assessment of Lubitsch did not go away. In particular, the charge of frivolity continued to carry weight. The most obvious (and persistent) evidence of this is the paucity of writings about Lubitsch and his films, as compared particularly with his American contemporaries. Secondly, Lubitsch research has concentrated in areas where critics can assert the “seriousness” of the work. It is not a coincidence that the three films that have been written about the most are Ninotchka, To Be or Not to Be (1942), and The Shop Around the Corner. The first two, while comedies (and indeed farces) deal with major political questions: the opposition between capitalism and Communism, and the German occupation of Poland. The third is probably the only Lubitsch film that can be said to portray rounded characters, and hence can be approached using literary-critical methods developed to deal with Shakespearean comedy—or even described as “realistic.” The same impetus seems to be behind the way the Jewish Question has loomed large in Lubitsch studies. The reemergence of the early short films in which Lubitsch plays a clerk in a shoe shop or tailor’s raised the specter of anti-Semitism, and might therefore have been expected to inhibit writing about the director but in fact promoted it—it is easier to defend Lubitsch against such a serious charge as racism than to discuss films that might seem trivial and frivolous. Finally, stylistic analyses that concentrate on the “Lubitsch touch” or more generally the use of ellipsis and indirect representation in his films have gained dignity, particularly in France, by adopting a psychoanalytic approach, since we know from Freud that jokes are a serious matter.

Biographies and Reference Works

The dossiers created for the Lubitsch retrospective at the Berlin Film Festival in 1984 and the Cinémathèque française in 1985 included critical and biographical essays as well as reference materials such as interviews and Lubitsch’s own writings. They are listed here with more traditional biographies and reference works. In particular, Prinzler and Patalas 1984 contains an indispensable biographical essay by Hans Helmut Prinzler and the best Lubitsch filmography (by Wolfgang Jacobsen), both reprinted in French in Eisenschitz and Narboni 1985. Prinzler and Patalas and the documentary Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin (see German Critical Tradition) as well as Hanisch 1991 call attention to the importance of the Berlin milieu for Lubitsch’s development as artist and filmmaker. Although some sources (such as Fink 1977, cited under Italian Critical Tradition) typify him as a cosmopolitan Jew without a country, these sources argue for the fundamental importance of his formation in Berlin, and his connections with the Berlin theater scene (via his apprenticeship with Max Reinhardt) as well as the burgeoning German film industry. Throughout his life and career Lubitsch remained in many ways a quintessential Berliner (see also Eisner 1969, cited under German Period): ironic, cynical, fond of pleasure, thoroughly secular, and mixing wit and vulgar humor in equal measure. His German citizenship was revoked by the Third Reich in 1935, and he became an American citizen in 1936, never to return to Germany, but in a 1932 newsreel extracted in Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin he refers to the city as his hometown.

  • Carringer, Robert, and Barry Sabath. Ernst Lubitsch: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.

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    The most comprehensive coverage of writing by and about Lubitsch between 1920 and 1977, focusing on English, but with significant references to French and German sources. Filmography includes plot synopses, notes on production and distribution, and major reviews. Lists stage performances and unrealized projects. Describes archival holdings of films, clippings, and manuscripts.

  • Eisenschitz, Bernard, and Jean Narboni, eds. Ernst Lubitsch. Paris: Cahiers du cinéma/Cinémathèque française, 1985.

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    Features brief studies of individual films; reprints of pieces by Lotte Eisner, Jean Domarchi; reminiscences by Hans Kräly, Samson Raphaelson, Jeannette MacDonald, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, Herman G. Weinberg, Jean-Marie Straub; articles from the special Lubitsch issue of Cahiers du cinéma in 1968.

  • Eyman, Scott. Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

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    First published in 1993. Standard 414-page American film-director biography, dealing chronologically with Lubitsch’s life and the films he made, with bibliography and annotations as to sources, including interviews by the author with the director’s kin and collaborators. Perhaps noteworthy is that it is the only such biography of Lubitsch.

  • Hanisch, Michael. “Ein Junge aus der Schönhauser.” In Auf den Spuren der Filmgeschichte: Berliner Schauplätze. By Michael Hanisch, 256–331. Berlin: Henschel Verlag, 1991.

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    Chapter of a book about Berlin as the principal locale of the German film industry in the silent period. Covers Lubitsch’s early life, education, and theater and film career, 1892–1922, especially the Berlin locations involved. Has many contemporary photographs of places and people, as well as reproductions of movie posters and production stills.

  • Huff, Theodore. “An Index to the Films of Ernst Lubitsch.” Special Supplement to Sight and Sound Index Series 9 (January 1947): 3–31.

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    One of the earliest scholarly works on Lubitsch, this filmography was published while the director was still alive, after the release of his last completed film Cluny Brown in 1946. Includes his German career as well as the films he produced at Paramount. Proposes a useful periodization of Lubitsch’s career.

  • Prinzler, Hans Helmut, and Enno Patalas, eds. Lubitsch. Munich and Lucerne, Switzerland: Verlag C. J. Bucher, 1984.

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    Includes a carefully documented account of Lubitsch’s life and career by Prinzler, with notes on collaborators and contemporaries, articles by Patalas and Frieda Grafe (included in the section German Critical Tradition), a filmography by Wolfgang Jacobsen, texts by Lubitsch, and notes on all the films.

  • Renk, Herta-Elisabeth. Ernst Lubitsch. Hamburg, Germany: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH, 1992.

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    Biography based upon extensive archival research and material drawn from the author’s interviews with Lubitsch’s second wife, Sanya Timmons (also known as Sania Bezencenet and Vivian Gaye), his daughter Nicola Lubitsch, and his niece, Eva Bentley-Bettelheim. Good account of the German films.

  • Weinberg, Herman G. The Lubitsch Touch: A Critical Study. 3d ed. New York: Dover, 1977.

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    First published in 1968 in tandem with the first major American retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. See Carringer and Sabath 1978 for the publication history. Biographical essay without notes. Includes reviews, interviews with Samson Raphaelson and Walter Reisch, short tributes by many film industry colleagues.

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