The Doll (1919)

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  • directed by Ernst Lubitsch
  • starring Hermann Thimig, Ossi Oswalda, Max Kronert, Gerhard Ritterband
  • A young man marries a lifelike doll in order to claim his inheritance, but when the dollmaker’s daughter starts to impersonate it, real love springs to life.

The Doll begins with Lubitsch pulling back the curtain and revealing himself as our host of sorts as he opens a box, removes set pieces, and constructs a playful, miniature homestead scene. He then retreats to the camera, slowly zooms in, and the same scene comes to life to begin the story. It was one of the best parts of the film and a great way to establish the mood and lend an air of whimsy to the rest of the action that followed.

Lubitsch took the short story Der Sandmann by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a much heavier and adult story, and turned it into a fantastical fairy tale full of comedic performances and imaginative visuals. In the adaptation, Lancelot, upon learning that he must choose one of the 40 female suitors his father has picked out for him, instead flees to a monastery as a way of avoiding such responsibility. It then becomes clear that he’ll be granted a lot of money upon getting married so he shops for a doll to be his bride. Before the transaction is finalized the doll breaks unbeknownst to him so the manufacturer’s daughter, who was the model for the toy, steps into its role. Enter Ossi Oswalda who gave a funny performance that successfully landed halfway between human and object and was also downright lovable at times.

I’m still trying to get to the bottom of the concept of the famed “Lubitsch touch,” a trademark aspect of the director’s work for which dozens of definitions seem to exist. On the surface it’s easily identifiable, with frequent recurrences of sophistication, sexuality, and an incredible and almost-otherworldly sense of lightness to his films. However there’s also something deeper to the touch, like it’s a direct line of communication between the director and his audience not reliant on character, story, or anything tangible on the screen to convey. Nothing as extreme as an outright acknowledgement of the audience-film relationship, but a unique dimension or convergence of message and story that more or less boils down to “you know it when you see it.” It’s not something I’m able to fully grasp yet without having seen the bulk of his work but I’m familiar enough to know that in The Doll we were shown something of a different side to the director.

In 1919, Lubitsch’s exploration of adult themes and trademark style begin to develop with the geopolitical film The Oyster Princess and the French nobility tale Madame du Barry. These films along with The Doll represent the variety of genres that the director was eager to tackle but one common trait unites them and it’s a distinct departure style-wise from German cinema at the time. Years before he even moved to Hollywood, Lubitsch’s film work was already moving fast toward the American sensibility and away from his home of Berlin. In comparison to some of his other films during these Berlin years, The Doll was an enjoyable film but felt slight in a way, leaning much more in the direction of his extensive theater past than it was one of the early signals of his future signature film style.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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