I’ve been on a Lubitsch kick lately — I did a lecture about him on Friday, so it was quite useful, as well as pleasurable. It finally got me motivated to watch DIE BERGKATZE (THE WILD CAT), which I own in a terrific Masters of Cinema box set, to which I actually contributed essays (on SUMURUN and ANNA BOLEYN), but which I somehow had never gotten around to. Now that the thing’s out of print, I should start appreciating it.
Like THE OYSTER PRINCESS, my favourite German Lubitsch, this is billed as “a grotesque,” and more than lives up to the billing. It might have been called ROMEO AND JULIET IN THE SNOW, except that Lubitsch had already used that title, and also that might give an impression of tragic romance rather than knockabout foolishness. But the plot deals with star-crossed lovers, a womanizing soldier (much like Chevalier in THE MERRY WIDOW) and a wild bandit girl (Pola Negri), and the whole thing is set around the bandit camp and the ridiculously ornate army fort, both situated in the snow-capped mountains. The film somehow unites baroque sets with real locations, partly by framing everything through fancy vignettes. The arched, or circular, or leaf-shaped frames are so relentless that when an occasional rectangular shot shows up, that looks peculiar.
Lubitsch had a gift for inspiring comic performances from actors not noted for being comedians (he told David Niven: “Nobody can play comedy who does not have a circus in his head.”) Pola can incline to the grotesque in her mannerisms anyway, so she might seem easy to divert into self-parody, but the lady had a mind of her own. In fact, her performance suits the film’s rambunctious tone, but she still manages to be the main character you care about, to the extent that you care at all.
The “Lubitsch touch” may be present in spots, but really the comedy here is broad and big and cartoony: a distraught lover weeps in his tent until a river flows from the flaps, snaking through the snow in a miniature canyon. When the very drunk commander of the fort tries to open a closet that Pola is hiding in, she snaps ~
“In my wardrobe? Shame on you!” the befuddled lush mutters, before staggering off.
So when I ask the trivia question “Which Lubitsch film has a joke about Pola Negri shitting in a cupboard?” you’ll know, won’t you?
Title of blog post explanation: according to Micheal MacLiammoir, Orson Welles was fond of a story about an émigré director in Hollywood who asked for a closeup of his star by demanding a “big head of Pola.” The phrase became code for a closeup on the set of Welles’ OTHELLO. Maybe it’s a German tradition — Hitchcock used the expression “big head” for a facial close-up throughout his career. It’s quite useful, since a close-up can be of a foot, a hand, a chair or anything. When one asks for a “close-up of Pola,” one’s cinematographer might well ask, “What part?”