Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Wildcat (1921)

The Wildcat (Die Bergkatze) is a 1921 Ernst Lubitsch silent comedy/romance. If you only know Lubitsch from his later Hollywood movies his early German movies will totally blow your mind. This is wild crazy stuff.

Lieutenant Alexis is an officer stationed in a large town located somewhere in a typical early Lubitsch fairy tale world. The lieutenant has been causing some disciplinary problems so as punishment he’s been sent to a remote fortress commanded by a crazy general with the most impressive moustache in movie history. It was considered necessary to remove Lieutenant Alexis from the temptations of town life.

This is devastating news for the female population of the town. When he departs hundreds and hundreds of women turn out to bid him farewell. They all have good reason to have fond remembrances of Lieutenant Alexis. Dozens of children turn out to bid farewell to him as well, waving as they say goodbye to Daddy. We now have some idea why all those women have such fond memories of Lieutenant Alexis. They are expressing their gratitude for the many services the lieutenant has performed for them. Services that he has performed cheerfully and with a great deal of diligence. He has clearly gone above and beyond the call of duty.

On his arrival at the remote fortress Lieutenant Alexis makes a favourable impression on the commanding general, who decides that the lieutenant would be a suitable husband for his daughter. The daughter is pleasant enough but Alexis is not keen on marriage.

The fortress is being menaced by a band of cut-throats and robbers. During his journey Lieutenant Alexis has already made the acquaintance of the daughter of the chief of the bandits. The young lady in question is Rischka (Pola Negri). She’s the wildcat referred to in the film’s title and wildcat is an apt description.

Rischka is wild but she is a woman and she is immediately rather smitten by the dashing woman-chasing lieutenant. She feels that he is the man she has been waiting for.

So in addition to several hundred women back in the town Lieutenant Alexis now has two women who have set their sights on him. He seems to be not unaware of Rischka’s wild charms.

Of course there is the question of whether any man can tame this female wildcat, but there’s another question. Can any woman tame the skirt-chasing lieutenant, and turn him into a one-woman man?

It’s all played for fun and there’s very much a farcical quality to the movie. It’s most definitely played for laughs. The humour is occasionally a little risqué, there are moments that approach slapstick and it’s always absurd and outrageous.

There’s a tendency to focus too much on Expressionism when discussing German movies of the silent era. The fact is that there was an extraordinary amount of visual inventiveness in these German movies and Expressionism in the strict sense was just one facet of this. Lubitsch’s early movies cannot be described as Expressionist, but there’s the same disdain for realism and the same amazing soaring feats of visual imagination.

Early Lubitsch (in movies such as The Doll as well as this one) have an uncompromising non-realist feel. They take part in a world that resembles a fairy tale world but it goes beyond this. Lubitsch’s early films are like storybooks with moving pictures and the artificiality is emphasised at every opportunity. There’s also the feel of having actually entered the artificial world of a storybook.

The sets are stunning, witty and exaggerated to an extreme degree. They look fabulous. The costumes are outrageous.

The performances are deliberately in a kind of pantomime style. These are not supposed to be real people. They’re storybook characters.

To describe Pola Negri’s performance as lively and energetic just doesn’t do her justice. She’s like a firecracker. She’s a delight.

Paul Heidemann is terrific as the vain womanising Lieutenant Alexis. He manages to make the lieutenant a loveable rogue.

Lubitsch really goes overboard with the masking of frames. Every frame seems to be a different shape. It adds to the playfulness.

There’s a battle scene between the soldiers and the robbers but of course no-one gets hurt. The worst that anyone is likely to suffer in this combat is being hit by a snowball.

This is a lighthearted candy-flavoured concoction which could easily have ended up being too sweet or too silly but its sheer exuberance carries it through.

The Eureka DVD provides a pretty decent transfer. This movie is part of their Lubitsch in Berlin boxed set (there’s now a Blu-Ray version as well). Most of the movies in this set are tinted but this one isn’t. English translations are provided for the intertitles.

These movies from so early in Lubitsch’s career have a totally unique feel. There have been plenty of fairy tale movies but none done with the same visual extravagance and style. The Wildcat is wild and crazy and very romantic. It’s a reminder of just how much visual style and flamboyance and imagination movies lost with the advent of sound. The Wildcat is highly recommended.

No comments:

Post a Comment