The Wildcat (1921)

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  • directed by Ernst Lubitsch
  • starring Pola Negri, Paul Heidemann, Victor Janson, Wilhelm Diegelmann
  • The leader of a band of mountain bandits falls in love with a Bavarian officer.

The Wildcat was the third to last film and final comedy for Ernst Lubitsch’s pivotal early years in Germany and it proved to be quite the unique spectacle. A lot of the director’s well-known sensibilities are strewn throughout—issues of status, silliness, satire, a particular style of visuals—but any kind of effort to have the story unfold in his traditionally layered way was cast aside in lieu of turning the volume up on everything way past maximum levels. To me the whole film seemed like a cathartic or rebellious exercise for him to go so far on the sets and natural locations and yet so buffoonish in his characters, so intrusive in his filming techniques, and so light on plot.

By far the aspect of The Wildcat that stands out the most is Lubitsch’s use of many differently shaped masks on the film. At times I was almost able to understand why he relied on such shapes to accent the action. When a character looks through a keyhole, why not have the entire frame shaped like a narrow keyhole? Even the thin diagonal bar frame worked when applied parallel to characters tumbling down a snowy mountain. But frames shaped like teeth, lips, circles, squiggles, and squares for no reason at all?

It was frustrating to see these shrunken frames covering up what were gorgeous Expressionist sets and very beautiful natural scenery. Imagine filming in the middle of gorgeous mountains and castles, designing amazing interiors, and then reducing what the viewer is able to see at most times to an area as small as a characters face. If it was a way to keep the mood as light as possible then I think it was misguided.

Knowing how thoughtful Lubitsch was in balancing his films, however, there’s a case to be made, and it’s one I hope is true, that it was a conscious choice to relentlessly defile such beauty and extravagance with silly pop art symbols. A decision like that makes sense in terms of the director’s brand and I presume it may speak to much of the intricate mood choices he would go on to employ throughout his Hollywood career. That makes the crucial question I have coming out of The Wildcat: meticulous ambition or slight experimentation?

There’s not much to say about the material because it all unfolded like a series of skits connected by a silk-thin plot. Pola Negri was out of control and fun to watch, the standout performance for me, maybe because it clashed with the chaotic pace, was Heidemann as the wooden and dreary Alexis, and all performances and scenes leaned heavily toward the cartoonish. Some of it worked and some of it didn’t. It’s definitely worth watching, though, as an inspired and energetic statement and, as an added bonus, there are not many films from this era that have survived or been restored in such clear, pristine condition.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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