Sunday, December 10, 2023

Sumurun (1920)

Sumurun is an early (1920) Ernst Lubitsch film. He was the director and co-writer. It’s included in Eureka’s Lubitsch in Berlin boxed set.

These very early Lubitsch movies will surprise people who only know his later Hollywood work. Lubitsch’s early interest was very much in fantasy. Some of the movies in this boxed set are quite bizarre, with an exaggeratedly artificial storybook style. Sumurun is a slightly more conventional Arabian Nights-style fantasy/adventure/romance.

It was based on a six-act pantomime by Friedrich Freksa.

Sumurun (Jenny Hasselqvist) is the favourite of the old sheikh’s harem women but she’s fallen in love with a handsome merchant. The shiekh is very cross with her. He’s even considering separating her head from her shoulders.

Meanwhile a group of minstrels is on its way to the city. The troupe includes a dancer named Yannaia (Pola Negri). They encounter a famous slave trader who thinks that the spirited girl dancer would make a fine addition to the sheikh’s harem.

On arrival in the city Yannaia attracts the attention of the sheikh’s vain but good-natured son.

Lots of plot complications and romantic intrigues ensue. It’s difficult to keep up with the number of romantic triangles that intersect with each other. Romantic and sexual triangles - sex is a major driving force in this movie.

The leader of the minstrel troupe is a hunchback who nourishes an unrequited love for Yannaia. The hunchback is played by Lubitsch himself.

There are all sorts of ruses used to gain entry to the harem. The slave trader wants to sell Yannaia to the sheikh and she’s maybe not entirely averse to the idea of being a harem girl (they do live lives of fabulous luxury) although she’d prefer to share the bed of the sheikh’s son rather than that of the old sheikh.

The movie takes its title from Sumurun but Sumurun as a character is rather overshadowed by Yannaia, and although Jenny Hasselqvist is very good she’s certainly overshadowed by Pola Negri’s bravura performance. But then almost any actress would have found herself overshadowed by Pola Negri. She’s in fine sexy form here and she’s playing the seductress with every man in sight.

Paul Wegener is suitably cruel and forbidding as the old sheikh.

The tone is all over the place. At times this is tragedy, at other times cheerful bedroom farce. The tragic tone is not quite what you expect from Lubitsch, and then suddenly the movie switches to broad comedy.

This movie is perhaps less experimental than other films in this set such as The Doll and The Wildcat (Die Bergkatze). It takes place in what is obviously a totally imaginary fairy tale world but it doesn’t draw attention to its own artificiality to the same extent. Lubitsch was playing around with different approaches from one film to another, looking for just the right approach for his purposes.

It looks great. The spectacular sets are very Arabian Nights in influence but they lack the engagingly bizarre fascination of the sets in other early Lubitsch movies. It’s all done on the grand scale and looks like a great deal of money was spent on it. On the whole it was money well spent.

doesn’t quite come off. The tonal shifts are too extreme and too sudden. But these early Lubitsch films are undeniably fascinating. He was prepared to try anything. And he tried some things that very very few directors since have dared to try. That’s enough reason for me to give Sumurun a highly recommended rating.

Eureka’s DVD transfer is tinted and this is a movie that absolutely has to be seen in a tinted print. The tinting in silent movies takes a bit of getting used to. It was a unique aesthetic of its own, totally different from either colour or black-and-white cinematography. I believe there’s now a Blu-Ray version of this set.

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