Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Nothing is real... Die Puppe (1919)

A subversive fairy tale in a film played out from a child’s model set up by the director… The Doll (Die Puppe) shows the post-modernist verve of Ernst Lubitsch to stunning affect, aided by the powerhouse comic miming of Ossi Oswalda. Quite clearly The Wildcat wasn’t the first example of the director playing with form and formula in glorious fashion: you keep expecting a Marx Brother to pop up, a lumberjack or maybe the Spanish Inquisition.

This was one of five features the director completed for UFA in 1919 although it was filmed in late 1918. It’s hard to imagine the mood in Germany at that time and perhaps this film is part of an escape to fantasy in those dark, defeated days.

Ernst Lubitsch gets his dolls house in order
It certainly looks like it as Lubitsch sets about constructing the dolls’ house at the start of the film: a small wooden cottage set atop a steeply-sloped paper mache hill. As the dolls become people we see one of the characters roll down the life-sized steepness directly into a square pond cut in the “ground”… he calls upon the Sun to dry him off and sure enough it emerges from behind the clouds to smile its warmth on his drenched clothes.

Sunshine dry-cleaning
The film has its own internal logic and is superficially a fairy tale only with characters driven by very adult motivations. There’s a young noble man apparently terrified of woman, a young boy who talks and thinks like a man (very Almodóvar!) and a woman who’s a doll who is actually a woman. Add the monks – pious on the outside and gorging pies on the inside and you have a world in which the deceptions of distrustful and selfish humanity distance them all from the truth.

Gerhard Ritterband and Victor Janson
Lubitsch took the basis for the story from the story by Ernst Hoffmann which inspired the ballet Coppélia and created something a little darker with co-screenwriter Hanns Kräly. The young man with the wet suit is Lancelot (Hermann Thimig) the nephew of the Baron of Chanterelle (Max Kronert). The Baron is nearing the end of his life and to ensure the continuation of the line, pressures Lancelot to get married.

On hearing of the potential availability of such an eligible bachelor, the local maidens begin to gather much to Lancelot’s discomfort: he is terrified of the prospects and runs for his life from the 40 women hoping to attract his attention.

Ich möchte kein Mann sein!
He makes his way to the nearest Abbey to ask for sanctuary interrupting the monks’ meal. These are no ordinary brothers: they gorge on vast quantities of meat and worry about their funds running out… yet to the outside world they are frugal as would be expected. Lancelot is welcomed into their midst but is only given scraps of bread as they continue their feast.

Monks munching
It is only when one of the monks sees an advert from the Baron offering his nephew 300,000 francs if he takes a wife that they take an interest in the young man… the ecclesiastic air is filled with bitter irony. But he cannot be with a woman… but one of the monks remembers that there is a man in the town who makes life-like dolls indistinguishable from real life: Lancelot can marry a mechanoid, collect the cash and – of course – hand over the money to the monks!

Lancelot goes off to the house of the bizarrely-coiffured Hilarius (Victor Janson) who is busily creating a new doll in the image of his daughter Ossi (Ossi Oswalda) aided by his outspoken young apprentice (Gerhard Ritterband).

There’s great scene in which Lancelot is escorted into the middle of a large room and then as Hilarius turns a wheel, dozens of designer dolls stride out form their storage shelves to embrace him: he’s as frightened of them as he is of the real thing.

They’re all a bit saucy for him and Hilarius decides that his newest creation would be the purest and goes to fetch the Ossie doll… unfortunately by this stage there has been an accident and the doll is broken. Ossie, naturally, stands in for the doll whilst the apprentice – whose fault it is – fixes things.

Ossi Oswalda
Off goes Lancelot with the girl-not-doll to arrange the marriage of man and mannequin as soon as possible. Ossi Oswalda revels in the role and her timing is absolutely spot-on as every smirk, gurn and slap is choreographed perfectly with Lancelot’s inability to spot the obvious. At their wedding she hungrily devours cake almost in front of him whilst enjoying a dance with the guests without his noticing his only comment is to marvel at her “intricate mechanism” when she reveals that she can dress herself.

The Baron meets the bride
Who is this young man and why is he so obtuse?

The couple go off to the monastery where the money is to be handed over, the model is to be mothballed and Lancelot can rest a lot… but really there’s too much mischief in Ossi for this story to end like this…

Lancelot and his lady
Die Puppe shows Lubitsch’s mastery of his content and also his uncanny ability to throw subversion into the heart of his comedy: the surface pantomime has clear secondary meanings but many of these have deeper and challenging interpretations. Yes the monks are corrupt but why does Lancelot agree to their weird plan when they will gain more than him? The Lord moves in mysterious ways but not as mysterious as organised authority perhaps… And love, true love, comes in the most unexpected circumstances…

Hilarius has a hair-raising experience (that's Lubitsch's pun not mine!)
I watched the version on Eureka's Masters of Cinema box set Lubitsch in Berlin: Fairy-Tales, Melodramas, and Sex Comedies – an essential set which I’m sure you’ve already got! If not it’s available from Amazon.

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