The Astute Humour of Ernst Lubitsch
Hailed by Orson Welles as “a giant” whose “talent and originality arestupefying”, Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947) is celebrated for inventing the genre of sophisticated romantic comedy and pioneering movie musicals. He won the admiration of his fellow directors, including Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, whose office featured a sign on the wall asking, “How would Lubitsch do it?” His stature and influence in the world of cinema has never faded over a century.
Born in Berlin in 1892, Lubitsch had already come to international prominence with hits like Madame DuBarry and Anne Boleyn, before he was invited by Mary Pickford to Hollywood in 1922. Remaining in the US for the rest of his career, he quickly established a reputation as one of the art-form’s most elegant and sophisticated auteurs. The Marriage Circle is a perfect example of his bold, taboo-breaking style, challenging social mores with his sexually liberated and progressive protagonists.
Transitioning seamlessly from the silent era into talkies, Lubitsch worked consistently with the biggest stars in the industry, while “the Lubitsch touch” became a brand unto itself. His brazenly frank and ribald comedies, such as Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living fell foul of the censors, but these controversies only fueled public interest in his allegedly salacious works. The outbreak of World War II seemed to inspire Lubitsch further, whether openly addressing Stalin’s oppressive regime in Ninotchka, or poking fun at Hitler himself in To Be or Not to Be.
Many of Lubitsch's films are set in prominent European cities like Paris, Budapest or Warsaw, rather than in America, while his protagonists are frequently foreigners navigating strange new lands, as envoys, diplomats, or those seeking safety or asylum. Yet, even with the world in turmoil, he continued to work almost exclusively within the realm of romantic comedy, following characters who disregard politics in the pursuit of personal happiness.
The ineffable quality of “the Lubitsch touch” is hard to define, but can be vividly experienced through his works: it is a style so witty, so ironic, so incisive, arranged with tight plots and refined visuals in conjunction with verbal thrusts and parries which elicits spiritual transcendence of the films. In Lubitsch’s world, he offers us an opportunity to escape, whether from the constraints of social etiquette, or more serious threats to our freedoms and prosperity, and it remains today as vital, and delightful, as ever.