Thursday, 30 May 2019

Humanising history... Madame Dubarry (1919), with John Sweeney, BFI Weimar Cinema

“I am an actor, and if I don’t play this part, I’m through with films! If I can’t play parts that I don’t look like, then I shouldn’t even be on the stage – I chose the wrong profession!”

Thus argued noted stage actor Emil Jannings on being told that he didn’t look regal enough to play King Louis XV in Ernst Lubitsch’s new film; four years later he would play the dilapidated doorman in The Last Laugh and he was, of course, eminently capable of playing the King. Lubitsch was so convinced he expanded the role and offered Jannings more work.

Made just a year after the Great War ended, Madame Dubarry was a lavish costume drama that was the most expensive film yet made in Germany. It led to director Ernst Lubitsch being labelled as the German Griffith and there are certainly parts of the film that show a debt. It's also possible that Orphans of the Storm – made three years later - was in part a response from the master to the younger man's smooth story-telling, controlled crowd scenes and subject matter. Lubitsch was more interested than DWG in “humanised” history, rather than simply finding identifiable emblems of “good or bad”… He concentrated on the impact on these events of a woman who barely comprehended her role in change, let alone the reaction she eventually faced.

Emil Jannings being "typically protean..."
There’s also not too much in common between Lillian Gish and Pola Negri... with the latter evincing an earthy humanity that convinces you that this humble seamstress could indeed earn the affection of aristocrats and Kings. In the US, the film was sold as her star vehicle, with little mention of its German origins: Polish star, “French story”.

Pola plays Jeanne Vaubernier a wild and carefree soul almost unconscious of her effect on men but with a pragmatic ambition driven by opportunism more than any political programme. She has a lover, Armand De Foix (an earnest Harry Liedtke) but sets her sights on any man of social standing who can offer her more. Thus, does she make her way in society first through the influential Don Diego then Le Comte Jean Dubarry and finally on to King Louis XV and the protean Emil. Jannings is measurably larger than life and seems to nailed the art of film acting very quickly, filling the screen with just the right amount of beaming charm along with the self-confident casual power that inhabits all the best monarchs.

A Lubitsch touch... the curtain reveals the opportunities now opening...
The pace of the story is so fast you wonder how things are going to develop beyond this point but life and French politics begin to overtake Jeanne. She gets the king to prevent Armand's execution and he becomes a member of the royal guard. At the same time she comes into range of the scheming Minister Choiseul (another great turn from Reinhold Schünzel) who hopes to advance his sister's position with the king. Meanwhile, France is a tinderbox of festering resentment at unfair taxes, food shortages and negligent aristocracy.

Jeanne and Armand meet and he is astonished to learn that she is the hated Dubarry; symbol of royal indifference and whimsy. "It is easy to forgive, " he says, "...but not to forget." Nevertheless, he gives her one last chance as he joins a band of proto-revolutionaries led by his friend Paillet. The situation is stirred up by both sides and Jeanne blows her chance by ordering Paillet's arrest. She is running out of friends and increasingly dependent on the King's favour. But, as his health begins to fade, the revolution looks ever more certain.

The action explodes in the last half an hour of the film and, having been focused on the individuals, the view is dramatically widened to show the revolt in the streets and the desperate battle of the citizenship against the army. As aristos hang from the lampposts, Jeanne is betrayed and sentenced to death: no one gets out of here alive.

Lubitsch shows much subtlety in focusing on character in telling this epic tale. There's a superb moment when Jeanne first arrives at Don Diego's house, her first taste of upper class living, as the curtain behind her pulls away to reveal the opulence of his cabinet. This shows the gap between the lives of the ordinary people and the nobles most effectively; why shouldn't Jeanne want to be part of this?

The director used over 2000 extras, and according to Herman G Weinberg in The Lubitsch Touch: a critical study (1977), he succeeds by making them act like individuals rather than a mindless mob… each one desperate for food, justice and crude revenge!

Motivated mob...
Madame Dubarry feels less melodramatic than an American film of the same period might have been and it’s more conflicted: you can feel sympathy for Jeanne without necessarily condoning her actions - she's not a pure white heroine by any means but she's true to herself even though she can't resist temptation. Try that one on for size Lil… there’s a worldly complexity in Negri’s approach that seems to come naturally and there’s an humour and charm working to humanise her selfishness.

Pola simply brings great energy to the role and, whilst there's the odd moment when she over-reaches, she's mostly naturalistic with a smile of pure unfettered joy. It's her innocent surprise at the benefits her looks bring that ultimately makes her likable. In the end you want her to be given one more chance even if the revolution demands that she must be punished.

One of Lubitsch’s best early dramas and told with a deftness that clearly got him noticed in Hollywood. As for Emil… he might had been a King but even he didn’t quite match the naturalistic brilliance and pure appeal of his Dubarry! His time would come later.

Harry and Pola in a tight spot
John Sweeney accompanied with regal assurance followed by revolutionary dynamism, pacing himself perfectly along the narrative as the film gets bigger and bigger to that devastating conclusion: Lillian is, of course, saved at the last from Madame Guillotine but there’s no mercy shown for Pola is bundled, unceremoniously to her death. Germany in 1920; if not an optimistic country then certainly a fatalistic one with, they hoped, no time for tyrants of any kind.

Madame Dubarry is an essential part of any Weimar “watch list”, and this is another reason to maintain calendar discipline and make sure you don’t miss a thing in the BFI’s Weimar Season – full details on the website.

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