Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Ernst incognito… Als Ich Tot War (1916)

This is not Ernst Lubitsch’s first film but it is his earliest-surviving long feature consisting of two reels and possibly a little more in the original version. It has something of the manic energy of his early comedies without perhaps the editorial control: as if he was in a rush and over-improvising. There’s no Pola Negri making like a cat or Ossi Oswalda not wanting to be a man but here we have Ernst himself not wanting to be alive… well, sort of.

Writer and Director introduces himself as a performer by stepping through the curtains in a nod to theatrical tradition. He grins at the camera and is a figure of impish vitality – it is good to see and whilst I’ve seen Ernst act in Sumurun here he is more himself in an attempt to be a dramatic comedy lead (not successfully as he later admitted).

Lanchen Voss and Louise Schenrich
He is followed on the cine-stage by Louise Schenrich who will play his wife and then the formidable form of Lanchen Voss who is his mother-in-law: Schwiegermutter in German which sounds far more of an insult.

Als Ich Tot War (When I Was Dead) was originally released as Wo Ist Mein Schatz? (Where's My Sweetie-Pie? or Treasure?) after the censors objected to the original title… there was a war on I suppose. It is a film about marital misunderstandings, chess obsessives and the transformative properties of the right kind of toupee.

But, more than anything, it is about the dangers of living with your mother-in-law… a timeless source of humorous friction: had Les Dawson been alive then or now, this is the kind of silent film had have made.

Happy families
Ernst lives with his lovely wife Louise and her over-bearing mutter, he has a passion for chess and after being invited to the local chess club for a match stays out far later than his Schwiegermutter would like. Ernst is frustrated by the slowest moving opponent you can imagine and chews hard on his cigar as he glances at the audience in frustration.

By the time his bland master opponent has moved enough to be defeated, his mother in law has locked him out of their apartment and, as he sleeps in the hall she evens steals his clothes for good measure – what a mean old Mam?!

Slow moving
An argument ensues the following morning and tensions run so high that his Louise has been persuaded to write him a note asking for a divorce: it seems that he may have won the match only to lose out in matrimony!

Ernst won’t take this lying down and writes a note back threatening to take his own life – when under pressure it’s always a good idea to sacrifice a pawn if it means you gain the Queen.

A mean ol' Mam
Mother-in-law wastes no time in going to a marriage bureau and asking what they have in stock. She is offered a middle aged man (Julius Falkenstein) who recoils at the possibility that she might be his match.

Meanwhile Ernst has been boring himself silly by enjoying life on the town… it’s not fulfilling and he wants his wife and life back. A job advert offers him a way, as Mother-in-Law advertises for an “intelligent younger man” to help around the house. With the aid of a cunning blonde wig, Ernst is becomes a different man and even his own wife doesn’t recognise him… see Mr Kent those glasses and Mr Wayne, that cowl… completely unnecessary!

Completely transformed!
The new houseman is a wow with the other servants and his employer begins to fall for his convincingly coiffured charms… but can Ernst prevent his wife being won away by the “new” man from the agency and thereby prevent his Schwiegermutter’s ultimate victory?!

It’s fluffy stuff but still funny and the three leads all play well with Ernst’s over-familiar nods and winks to us almost a statement of intent from the great director he was to become… “this is me messing about but just you wait a few years!” Deeply un-historical I know, but this man has the look of someone who really knows what he’s going to do!

The old and the young get ready...
The film was regarded as lost until the 1990s when an almost-complete copy was found in the Slovenska Kinoteka – it appears to be missing part of the first act and maybe even the ending although maybe Lubitsch trusted his audience enough to know how completely all would be resolved.

Three's a crowd
It is now available as part of the Masters of Cinema dual disc edition of Madame Du Barry (1919) – which is a vast upgrade on the version of that film I’ve previously watched. It is available direct or from Amazon – a must-have for those who appreciate the importance of being Ernst!

It comes with a zippy new score from Aljoscha Zimmermann played on clavier and violin and which suits you very well Herr Lubitsch!

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