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April 04, 2023

The Wildcat


Die Bergkatze
Ernst Lubitsch - 1921
Kino Classics BD Region A

The film is subtitled A Grotesque in Four Acts, but as Anthony Slide explains in his commentary track, the German meaning is not the same as in the English language usage. Some of the comic and visual elements are uncharacteristic for a Lubitsch film. Some of the sight gags would seem more a part of slapstick comedies. The interior set of a large castle fortress has rooms dominated by curlicue room dividers and furniture. Most conspicuous is the use of masking for many of the shots with framed within circles, lip shapes, diagonal shafts, and what anticipates the letterbox frame. The Wildcat was not only a box office failure in its native Germany, but unlike other Lubitsch films at the time, failed to get a U.S. release.

The basic setting resembles a fictional 19th Century German mountain village, except for the incongruous appearance of one chauffeur driven cabriolet, with a high ranking soldier falling in love with the daughter of a bandit chief. German militarism gets poked with the fort commander's mustache that resembles the propellor of a toy airplane. Morning starts with soldiers who would rather stay in bed than respond to that morning's bugle. Lieutenant Alexis is being foisted on the commander. Alexis' reputation as a ladies man is illustrated first by the hundreds of women who gather around his car, weeping at his leaving. This is followed by fifty or so little girls acknowledging Alexis' prodigious paternity. When we are introduced to Rischka, the daughter of the bandit chief, she wields a whip. Lubitsch admirer and collaborator, Billy Wilder, may have thought he was getting away with something with his Great S and M Amusement Corporation in Ace in the Hole, but what Lubitsch did thirty years earlier would probably make even the pre-Code Hollywood censors blush. A suicide gag anticipates To Be or Not To Be by about twenty years.

I admit to not having seen any of the other films star Pola Negri made with Ernst Lubitsch. The only other film I have seen is one I barely remember, Hi Diddle Diddle (1943), one of the couple of times Ms. Negri took a break from retirement after a return to Germany in the mid 1930s. As Rischka, Negri is raccoon eyes and rat's nest hair, essentially a force of nature. It is mostly a physical performance of rolling down snowy hills, sliding around a highly waxed floor, leading the bandits in dance, and intimidating the men in her presence. When Rischka encounters her romantic rival for Alexis, she simultaneously consoles the woman while stealing her pearl necklace. Once a thief, etc. Alexis is played by Paul Heidemann, a popular actor of the time, but arguably miscast as a great lover, his thining hair making him look even older than his 36 years.

Film historian Anthony Slide does what he can with a film that has little documentation. Even he is uncertain as to what motivated Lubitsch to use the masking, with some of the shapes repeated within the sets. Slide does explain how the masking was an in-camera effect done by cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl, so that those shots were specifically designed to be filmed within the variously shaped frames. In spite of the limited information available, Slide is still able to be informative about the film, cast and crew. The blu-ray was sourced from a 2K digital restoration that in turn was from a 2000 restored print.

The blu-ray also includes the featurette, When I was Dead, made in 1916, with Lubitsch as writer, director and star. The 37 minute long film begins with the three main actors being introduced as if on stage. Lubitsch's first appearance is self-deprecating. It also suggests that while totally leaving acting to concentrate only on directing was a few years in the future, Lubitsch was already in the process of making his name a recognizable brand. Lubitsch plays the part of a husband kicked out of the house by his mother-in-law for staying out late playing chess. He writes a fake suicide note to his wife and then returns home disguised as a servant. Film historian Joseph McBride provides a commentary track here, with more of an examination of Lubitsch career as a stage and screen actor. An extra bonus is that the film is tinted, restored in 1995, with the digital restoration done in 2012.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 4, 2023 07:10 AM