(German, 1919, 85 minutes, b&w, 16mm)
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
With Madame DuBarry, Lubitsch proved himself as a director of all-around ability, fluent in several genres, including the historical epic. These vast films had everything -- sex, intrigue, war, violence -- and all of it couched in the edifying language of "History," so that no one could accuse the filmmakers of merely pandering to their audience's base desires. The Italian epic, Cabiria (1913), may well have initiated this trend. Soon, there followed D.W. Griffith, whose The Birth of a Nation (1915) seemed made by a man who thought the movies could displace History itself. But there were few directors with the intelligence, vision, and sheer nerve required to make a success of this elephantine form. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) crumbled beneath the weight of its four stories and dozens of major characters, and the young MGM studios was almost bankrupted by the years-long struggle to find someone who could get Ben-Hur (1924) to the screen.
In 1919, Lubitsch joined the elite company of those whose touch was strong and sure enough to mold the material of history. Madame DuBarry is the story of the infamous, sexually provocative courtier to Louis XV in the tumultuous time of the French Revolution. Just as Griffith had made his epics speak to the spirit of the international convulsion of World War I, Lubitsch's film about the struggle to claim the future of a nation was allegorical to his own time. In bloody riots near Berlin's huge UFA studios, the future of Germany was then being contested between the hard Left of the Spartacists and the even harder Right of the emergent Nazis. Lubitsch's story of the French Revolution had an eerie resonance to post-Armistice Germany. A fiery rabble in the streets, demanding justice or blood, while those in charge dither and intrigue in the walls of government -- to some, this was less a historical film than a documentary.
Lubitsch had been a protege of the great impresario of epic theater, Max Reinhardt, and several scenes in Madame DuBarry show a Reinhardt-style gift with mass action. As the crowds mill about the guillotine, their fists pumping, we can virtually hear the clamor, and feel the sharp edge of the crowd's fury. Against this tapestry of anger the film presents its vision of Louis' court at Versailles; as wormy and perverted a claque of royals wouldn't be seen on the screen again until von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress in 1934.
Louis, as incarnated by Emil Jannings, is by turns comic, bombastic, passionate, and ultimately, tragic. Jannings was then the German cinema's preeminent character lead. Large, ungainly, and dissipated-looking, Jannings crafted some of the most deeply unattractive, yet compelling characters of the German silent screen in films such as The Last Laugh (1924) and Variety (1925). In view of those portrayals of pompous, self-deluded men, it seemed a matter of destiny for Jannings to end as a senior official in the post-1933 Nazified German film industry.
As the scandalous Madame DuBarry, the legendary Pola Negri first imprinted her dark and decadent beauty on the world's screens. Sound would doom Negri's career, but for a few years, she would reign as one of the silent cinema's true divas, the kind of screen presence Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond must have been thinking of when she said, "We didn't need voices -- we had faces then!" Negri's greatest role would come as the grieving paramour at Rudolph Valentino's funeral, when she had to be restrained from throwing herself on Rudy's coffin, her combination of spectral couture and haunting beauty earning her the designation "The Lady in Black."
What would later become known as "the Lubitsch touch" with manners and social irony is already in evidence in Madame DuBarry, but whereas in his later Hollywood comedies such as Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Ninotchka (1939) that touch would properly be called "romantic," here, it is harnessed to the service of something that must surely be the opposite of romance. Louis' love for Madame DuBarry becomes a twisted, grossly comical thing, when Louis is reduced to the role of DuBarry's menial servant. Throughout Madame DuBarry, Lubitsch lavishes attention on the mise-en-scene of court life, the furnishings of Dubarry's boudoir, and the sheer physicality of Versailles. This concentration on the minutiae associated with the lives of DuBarry and Louis is balanced against the panoramic social view of the Revolution, with its tumbrels and guillotines and churning crowds. Lubitsch's history, like Griffith's in The Birth of a Nation (a director and a film Lubitsch deeply admired), is made up of matters that are at the same time epic and momentous, yet minutely human, even prosaic. Lubitsch's epic cinema is, finally, a cinema of epic emotions. Small wonder that, when his historical films Madame DuBarry and Anne Boleyn (1920) came to the United States, their American distributor retitled them Passion and Deception, respectively.
Historian Scott Eyman has noted that Lubitsch's vision of history as a foaming cauldron of class antagonism would shape much of epic and historical cinema for the next 20 years, particularly in Europe. Ironically, Lubitsch, having mastered the form, would turn away from it. Leaving the world of Reinhardt, with its gigantic scope, Lubitsch would, in his American years, perfect a more miniaturized art, becoming the acknowledged master of the romantic comedy. His biting social cynicism would mutate into a softer irony, and he would forsake vast crowd scenes for a more intimate kind of cinema. But until the end of his life, he would maintain his faith in the cinema's ability to scorn hypocrisy, whether that hypocrisy lived at the court of Versailles, or in the puritanical soul of the Hays Office.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
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