Saturday, 10 May 2014

Girls who like boys who like girls dressed as boys… Ich möchte kein Mann sein (I Don't Want to be a Man) (1918)

OK, so it’s the back of a carriage in the early hours after a long night downing champagne, smoking fat cigars and chasing the perfect dance. There’s a man in the back of the carriage in that delirious state between blotto and oblivion kissing a man with affectionate pecks on the lips. There’s also a woman kissing a man and pretending to be a boy. Confused? You might well be… all in a day’s work for Ernst Lubitsch who was clearly one of the first to start the pan-sexual Weimar party.

Ich möchte kein Mann sein (I Don't Want to be a Man and sometimes, I Wouldn’t Want to be a Man) was one of the director’s last long-shorts made just before his first feature with Pola Negri Die Augen der Mumie Ma (1918).  Here his star was the equally-wild Ossi Oswalda who acts with energetic conviction the role of the uncontrollable tomboy who finds the saving graces of her gender through cross-dressing.

Ossi Oswalda
Initially she is shown gambling, drinking and doing all manner of grown-up things from which her uncle (Kurt Götz) and governess (Margarete Kupfer) forbid her if only to allow themselves to indulge. Lubitsch highlights the comic hypocrisy of both as she carries on smoking Ossi’s cigarette and he grabs a bigger glass to increase the rate of alcoholic intake.

Ossi's admirers
Ossi’s like Iggy with a Lust for Life… or at least for eating cherries and gobbling candies in her window whilst a crowd of young men pleads to be fed like hungry penguins. She obliges only for Uncle to chase them away... what the girl surely needs is some discipline or maybe an adventure!

Uncle is called away for the comically un-specific fact that “the institute he has set up is ready for him” but before he goes he recruits a stern governor to make sure his ward is properly looked after: Herr Counsellor Brockmüller (Ferry Sikla)…

Ossi Oswalda, Margarete Kupfer and Ferry Sikla
Brockmüller almost immediately brings Ossi to heel with his startling natural authority – he’s also a bit of a looker boys and girls! But Ossi is not so easily curtailed and she vows to resist whilst he promises to cut her down to size. The game is afoot!

Ossi decides to play men at their own game and goes off to the gentlemen’s outfitters to order a dinner suit. The assistants fight over measuring her up and decide on splitting the work limb by limb. Men lust after Ossi in groups and make horrible obvious play of their intentions: are you watching Sydney James?

Kitted up in starched collar, bow tie, top hat and tails, Ossi sets off to have fun at the dance hall, catching the eye of a number of young women as she takes her pretty-boy swagger to the dance. Once arrived she’s almost overcome by the physicality of the place as both sexes rush for advantage. Then she chances across someone familiar: Herr Brockmüller.

She tries to attract away Brockmüller’s favoured escort and as he rushes to confront the impudent challenge of this young man, turns to find his target already lost to another man. Women eh? Butterfly minds and unreliable… He takes solace in his new acquaintance who, it transpires, is an excellent drinking buddy.

It’s a long night and by the time the two fall out onto the pavement it’s the morning and they’re struggling to think or walk straight, putting on each other's overcoats which happen to include their address cards. Confused by the cards, their driver takes them to each other’s houses but not before the above-mentioned drunken smooching. Cheekily subversive. the kissing has the audience running through the permutations: Ossi knows what she’s doing but Herr Brockmüller is clearly a man of broad tastes…

No spoilers:   I won’t reveal what happens next, when the two “gents” wake up in the wrong beds… except to say that Lubitsch hasn’t finished with his twists and turns. Lessons are learned and important information is gained from both parties.

Lubitsch was already an experienced film maker by this stage and it’s interesting to observe his clear delight in the transgressive confusion. The film’s pacey and funny with a plethora of side-jokes thrown in for good measure: Uncle being thrown around in his sea cabin, the Governess finishing off Ossi’s cigarette and the neat subtleties of the denouement.

All is topped off by a splendid piano score from Mr Neil Brand which perfectly complements the frantic, light-hearted pace of events with a romantic flourish.

But it’s Ossi that makes the biggest  impression. This film was made before the conclusion of the First World War and fashionably featured a strong, independently-minded woman trying to find a new level in a society robbed of so many men. In Germany as elsewhere, the War left an opportunity for gender equality and Ossi was here to grab that chance with both hands either in a suit or in a dress… for the continuation of the film’s title is clearly: I want to be a woman!

I Don't Want to be a Man is available as part of the priceless Lubitsch in Berlin DVD box set recently made available by Masters of Cinema/Eureka. It’s available at best price from Movie Mail as well as the tax dodgers.

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