Friday, 8 November 2013

Everybody wants to be a cat… The Wildcat (1921)

This is a film which inverts sexual stereotypes, emasculates the military and turns its heroes into mere fop stars.

The Wildcat (Die Bergkatze) is one of the most unusual silent films I’ve watched and is infused with Ernst Lubitsch’s off-beat humour and set alight by Pola Negri’s energetically-free expression. Pola doesn’t just fill the role of the titular wildcat she tears up every scene given full licence by her director to be herself, to be a cat… to just go wild.

Taking expressionist design to its chocolate box extreme, Lubitsch gives us a snow-bound Sumurun without so much dancing and drama and with all holds on reality barred. This is a dreamlike fantasy that even tops itself with a dream sequence that shows just how much further things could have gone. A “grotesque…” as the director said… in four parts.

Even now it’s still surprising and Pola Negri is still an event.

Victor Janson
The tale begins as a strange castle awakes. This is Fort Tossenstein and there are unusual lines all around and gun turrets massed in odd clusters halfway up walls – it’s like the castle in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the fort’s commander (Victor Janson) looks like the king in that film, with his exaggerated Teutonic ‘tache and pumped-up pomposity.

He rallies the half-hearted guards who promptly flop back into bed, and goes to see his equally bizarre family. His daughter Lilli (Edith Meller) sits bored in her bedroom, seemingly about to kill herself, but the gun she puts into her mouth is only made of candy – what a strange joke…

Edith Meller
His bejewelled wife (Marge Köhler) passes him a note that reveals the impending arrival of Lieutenant Alexis (Paul Heidemann) – at last a suitor for their daughter.

Alexis turns out to be not just the most eligible man in the kingdom but one who holds much of its female population in thrall. In scenes of prescient mania, his farewell parade is attended by thousands of screaming girls, who swarm around hoping for just a glimpse… along with what seems to be dozens of his own children.

Alexis and his fans
But… Alexis is no Harry Styles, he’s not even a Justin Bieber…maybe that’s the point. Soldiers with no devotion and stars with no presence: everything is exactly how it shouldn’t be.

Next we’re taken to a mountain top where a group of desperate renegades drink ground coffee and can’t seem to work out what’s worth stealing. The bandit's captain, Claudius (Wilhelm Diegelmann) tries to discipline his men but they aren’t afraid of him – just as the soldiers don’t fear their leader. But, when he calls for his daughter they soon show concern.

Rischka (Pola) emerges from a nap and prowls outside quickly picking up her riding crop to swipe any of the men who dare to challenge her. Kinkily, two of the men seem to rather enjoy her spanking and one even goes back for more. This wouldn’t be out of place in a twisted seventies stage farce but it’s rather more overtly perverse than you would expect.

Rischka is the real leader of this motley crew and soon she spies a lone sleigh making its way across the ice. It turns out to be Alexis en route to the castle and, whilst Rischka has the same extreme attraction as every other woman on encountering this unlikely heartthrob, that doesn’t stop her from robbing him of all his clothes.

He is forced to walk to the castle in his long johns whilst Rischka’s nurses a crush, making a make-shift shrine of his trousers with his publicity photo neatly placed below the crotch…

The castle sends out soldiers to teach the robbers a lesson and, accompanied by their own brass band, they singularly fail to land any blows as they are fended off by snowball and gypsy pratfalls.

Guns and drums at the ready...

One soldier pleads with Rischka not to be so rough and she spreads her arms wide, shrugs and replies: “war is war”… But snowballs are less harmful than guns. The rogues start to fall almost in slow motion, echoes of Sam Peckinpah, save for the fact that some even have the time to shake hands… Of course they haven’t been shot and are merely faking death to surprise the idiot soldiers.

Rischka easily out-thinks the troop and ends up letting Alexis fall down a ravine, yet, as in any cartoon he’s unharmed.

The "victory" ball...
The men return and the commander lays on a massive party to celebrate their “victory”… queue fireworks!! Yet, whilst they dance in strange rooms, the inhabitants of the castle are unaware that Rischka’s band are breaking in and set on stealing every, pillow, bed stead and hat, that they can find. They don’t seem that materialistic…

The leaders are weak and the women are strong: there’s a kind of gender reversal when Rischka kisses Alexis – he can’t match her intensity and again when he prepares himself for her, slipping into something more comfortable. The men seem emasculated and to enjoy their punishments… so soon after the very masculine failure of World War One?

Rischka still longs for the feckless Alexis and has intense dreams in which they dance through distorted castle halls, backed by a snowmen orchestra and he gives her his heart in biscuit form, she devours it just as surely as she would him..

Inserts snowman pun here...
Claudius decides she is in need of a husband and sets about finding a willing volunteer from his ragged band, but will his wildcat find peace with her own people or will she surrender her instincts to the shallow depths of Alexis' sheen?

Throughout Rischa is true to herself and ultimately she has a greater sense of duty and honour than the entire rank and file of the castle guard. That still doesn’t stop her redistributing the odd bit of wealth but, in the end, all’s fair…

Sandwiched between Anne Boleyn and The Loves of Pharaoh, this is Lubitsch in comedy overdrive and the clowning seems almost out of time until you think of the context and the growth of Dada and early Surrealism. Some compare the style to later British humour (M.P.... bingo!) but there’s more in common with Bunuel and Dali whilst you could easily see Groucho and his brothers stuck in this mess a decade down the line.

The art direction from Max Gronert and Ernst Stern is superb whilst the cinematography from Theodor Sparkuhl is all the more accomplished when you consider the location shoots. Lubitsch uses a range of cut-outs to frame certain shots from straight lines to crazy curves… all adding to the cartoon feel of the capers on view.

The pace of the comedy never lets up from start to finish and the cock-eyed world the crew create never wavers. Lubitsch deserves great credit for this cohesion as things could so easily just get *silly* but they don’t go too far, they stay the comedy course. We believe and we want the best for the characters that the film’s logic will allow.

But none of this would work without the lioness at the heart of proceedings. Pola Negri has a swaggering intensity throughout and you just can’t steer your gaze away from those huge, darting, dark eyes…

I watched the Kino edition (available direct or here) which features an appropriately lively score by Marco Dalphane which is chock full of interesting themes and musical cross-references as it keeps up with the film’s kinetic pace. Like the film it keeps running and jumping never once coming to land on dull reality.


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