Julius Urgiss on Ernst Lubitsch

Artist Profile: Ernst Lubitsch

Julius Urgiss on Ernst Lubitsch

Julius Urgiss, Der Kinematograph, Düsseldorf, 30 August 1916

This small, energetic, and still youthful man never has the time. He is forever on the go, always busy with projects, ideas, and work, and always ready to absorb new activities. Always and wherever art is. When I met him at a careening and pitching coffeehouse at the busiest hour of the day, and told him that I wanted to have a few earnest words with him about the art of film and his part in it, he said to me: “What, my name isn’t Ernest enough for you?” And with that he dragged me up a flight upstairs, where it was supposed to be quieter. But even there the persistent bustle disturbed me. The goings-on had little effect on Lubitsch though, and indeed, what he said was so interesting, he soon had my full attention, and I no longer had eyes for anything but the Subject at hand.

The preliminary conversation unfolded more or less as follows: “So what can I do for you?” he asked. “Now, hold your horses, young man!” I said. “First I have to get out my notebook, then I’ll draw my lance, my pen that is, and then you’ll just answer the questions I put to you.” But there was my Lubitsch again: “Look, I talk too fast, you won’t be able to write it all down. And I don’t have the time!” I gently coaxed him back into his chair. Then, I not only held him there by his coat sleeves, but held a five-minute lecture for his benefit, all about time’s value and its corruption, and concluded my luminous discourse adducing the fact that time is indeed the only thing we have. Lubitsch’s jaw dropped. “Aha,” I said, “now you’re the one at a loss for words.” He shook his head thoughtfully and I heard him murmur, “Well I’ll be. At a loss for words. That’s never happened to me before.” And as it often happens in life that the most contradictory of characters suddenly find themselves on a common path, so too did it happen with us; our conversation began to flow as I had desired. And Lubitsch’s first name notwithstanding, the conversation was earnest, very earnest.

I hardly had a chance to ask my questions. Lubitsch talked and talked. At first he discharged all the criticism he had been accumulating. He took particular issue with the prevailing view, especially amongst many actors unfortunately, of film acting as requiring less theatrical talent than does acting for the stage. He called it a depreciation, unjustified and unproven. And precisely because so many stage actors still were of this bizarre, erroneous opinion — which kept them from engaging with the art of film, or even from casting a glance down to it from above — Lubitsch had no patience for dilettantes acting before the crankcase.

Granted, Lubitsch continued, theatre is not the same as film; the most important difference for him being the tighter scene direction in the film piece. And then one must keep in mind the difficulties involved in shooting the scenes not according to their sequence later in the finished film, but according to the plot’s locations. This last is of especial import for the mental calibre of the actor, who must have his art so under control that he can find his way back at any time to any of the previously performed situations. Aside from this enormous handicap, which can be appreciated only by those who have engaged with it substantially (and with more or less understanding depending on how substantially), Lubitsch pointed out that just as the stage actor must possess a fine feeling for his tone of voice in any given scene (in every given moment in fact), so too must the film actor know how slowly or lively or quickly his body ought to move. Here, according to Lubitsch, is where the film director’s proficiency, so different on so many points from that of the theatre director, must prove itself. “The director,” he said, “is another story. I would say that more or less all of them make the same mistake. They consistently use a permanent cast, at least for lead roles. But it’s wrong, absolutely wrong. In film, where it’s gesture and mimicry that have to do the talking, where words, their great allies, are missing, roles have to be cast much more individually. The director basically suffers under the terms of his own direction.”

Even so, Lubitsch speaks with great appreciation of film directing and film scenery. He shares the view that the décor must be first-class, that is, beautiful and stylish. But the concept of the décor ought not to preponderate; it ought not to become, as we so often see, the main attraction. In the effort to bring large scenery sets and deep spaces into the picture, he says, the camera becomes so disposed that the play of the actors must needs be neglected. But this play still is the most important thing, the nerve of the whole film. That is why every important scene should be shot with the figures foregrounded. This way, too, the finest nuances of the actor’s facial gestures can be shown. The makeup itself is not so important; Lubitsch does without it whenever possible; and he emphasizes a principle he had mentioned earlier, that an actor ought only to play parts suited to his personality.
Lubitsch himself is a personality. The comic verging on the burlesque is his domain; and in it he sees two different codes. In the burlesque film all manner of unlikelihood is permitted, and logic may be disconnected altogether. In the film comedy, however, the plot must be constructed logically. To mix these two brews is artistically impossible. But Lubitsch is a master of both, and he has given us many examples documenting this fact.

The question suggested itself, and in fact it ought to have been the first one I posed, as to where Lubitsch stood on films set in Jewish milieus. His greatest triumphs have been of this variety of film (think only of the artistic sensation “Die Firma heiratet,” think only of “Der Stolz der Firma,” think only of “Schuhwarenhaus Pinkus”). He grew excited: “It has often been said that films set in Jewish milieus are offensive. This position is simply unbelievable. Should such a film prove displeasing, then that is due entirely to a mode of presentation that simply does not ‘get’ the essence of Jewish humor, in which case the filmmaker should simply leave the matter be; or else it is due to inappropriate exaggeration, which would be detrimental to any artistic effort and its desired effects. Jewish humor, regardless of where it turns up, is appealing and artistic, and it plays such an all-around important role that it would be ridiculous for filmmakers to ignore it.”

Lubitsch has always been an energetic champion of humor in art. Humor is the life-blood coursing through each of his creations, humor in every shade. This is the reason, too, for his successes; and we shall understand this success if we keep in mind a maxim that the old theatre man Heinrich Laube once laid down: “Humor has a greater effect on German audiences than mere gaiety.”

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