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Billy Wilder reportedly had a poster in his office, which said “How would Lubitsch do it?” – referring to German American writer-director Ernst Lubitsch. Perhaps, the question should have been: “How would Lubitsch touch it?” The man responsible for the modernization of Hollywood had a style so distinct and alluring it earned a special name. After Midas, it is the ‘Lubitsch Touch’ we must be aware of.
No two filmmakers seemed to agree on what exactly was his touch. Yet all would unequivocally eulogize it. Wilder said that it was the elegant use of a super-joke. This means, the unexpected joke on top of a joke. Scott Eyman said that Lubitsch’s films are set neither in Europe nor in America, but in Lubitschland – a land of metaphor, benign grace and rueful wisdom.
Lubitsch Touch was the art of deviating from the original narrative and focusing on the details of an alluring nothingness and making it a device to reveal the obvious. Or simply, the non-obvious way of stating the obvious. A reaction shot, an unrelated detail, a metaphor – this was achieved by various means. This process needed audiences to be active participants instead of passive consumers. Lubitsch wanted audiences to solve the 2+2=4 problem and fill in the gaps themselves. In this way, his works reached viewers in an unprecedented manner.
Film students and cinephiles dig up on his later works to see this touch for themselves. However, his earlier output is the unexplored goldmines. Released 100 years ago this week, The Oyster Princess brought a very distinctive style to how romantic comedies are typically portrayed.
The film revolves around the American oyster king, Mr. Quaker (Victor Janson) and his overwhelmingly pampered daughter, Ossi (Ossi Oswalda). Described as a grotesque comedy in four acts, the first shows the life of the Oysters. Mr. Quaker, who is not impressed at anything, is always surrounded by a bunch of slaves. One combs his hair. Another holds his tea. Meanwhile, one unfortunate slave’s sole function is to wipe his nose.
His home makes the Louvre and Palace of the Parliament look like an infinitesimal murky chamber. In an era devoid of Google Maps, people must carry a map to navigate from one point of the building to the other. His mollycoddled daughter has fits of raving madness, breaking everything in sight. The shoe cream’s daughter has married a count, and she demands a husband immediately. By immediately, the damsel in distress means within an hour and thirty-five minutes. Quaker promises her that he will ‘buy’ a prince. Seligson, the erstwhile personified Tinder app, who has his walls covered with potential candidates, finds the right swipe with Prince Nucki (Harry Liedtke).
Nucki, a German prince, is having a rendezvous with both dream and reality. A member of royalty in heavy debt, his impoverished condition forces him to wash his own clothes. However, that doesn’t stop him from smoking a pipe like a king. He lives in his dreary apartment with his friend Josef (Julius Falkenstein). When the matchmaker comes to his place with the good news, he sends Josef to ask him to wait, while he sets up his anachronistic chair. He sits in a manner to justify his family tree, and instead of visiting the Oysters himself, sends his friend to inspect.
The comedy of errors commences when Ossi confuses Josef with Nucki and marries him. A foxtrot epidemic breaks out during the wedding as everyone is dancing to the band’s tune. Quaker finds a random guest while Ossi traps a waiter to partner her in what might be the most primitive forms of classical hip-hop. Lubitsch gives the term ‘slapstick’ a literal meaning as a band member continuously slaps another member on the beat. Josef, though, is gulping down the Nile of alcohol, and might embark on the Pacific Ocean soon. Nucki, unaware of his marriage ceremony, goes on a spree with his friends.
Besides breaking vases and chairs, Ossi has another major function – she is the member of the Multi-Millionaires’ Daughters Association Against Dipsomania. The revolutionary ladies shout “down with dipsomania”, while gulping down wine in the same breath. Nucki returns from his spree and enters the meeting. Seeing the only handsome man, a boxing match breaks out amongst the women to find who will claim him.
No prizes for guessing who won that fight. Ossi takes him to her palace and the comedy turns into romance as the couple kiss. Josef reveals that they both are unknowingly married, and the audience put a broad smile on their faces to see a happy ending.
Every filmmaker has his trademark shot or object. Before Quentin Tarantino’s trunk shots and Alfred Hitchcock’s trains were Lubitsch’s use of doors. Doors were used in a metaphorical sense and have a special purpose in this film. Lubitsch exploited the off-screen space and played with what’s not in the shot. This helped audience frame their own perspective and come to their own conclusion. Much of his works had to do with the unique and sophisticated portrayal of sexual desire. In a manner, the use of doors also helped him to evade the shackles of censorship.
In The Oyster Princess, we see the sorrowful and dejected King when, through the keyhole, he finds his daughter sleeping alone on the night of her marriage. He is anxious about his dynasty, and might think of returning to his youthful self if her daughter fails to provide a successor. The keyhole is used again at the end of the film, when he King finds his daughter with Nucki after the real marriage. The unswerving man, who might not be impressed even if he gets the entire world’s wealth, is finally impressed. I doubt whether any filmmaker could have provided a better conclusion to the film.
Casting has always been Lubitsch’s forte. Janson, Liedtke and Falkenstein are all marvelous in their roles, but Ossi Oswalda takes the cake. The Mary Pickford of Germany, Oswalda drives the film. She makes the audience love her, hate her, laugh at her and have pity on her – all at the same time. The other two persons who performed their roles well were Kurt Richter and Rochus Gliese – the production designers.
On top of all this, Lubitsch mocks the American upper-class for their shallowness, ignorance and gaudy materialism. Released at a time when World War I had ended and just two days before the historic signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Lubitsch also makes fun of the German prince, who has lost all his glory but is still reminiscent of the past and holds fast to the bygone days of splendor.
While The Oyster Princess might not be Lubitsch’s best work, the film certainly laid the foundation for what was to come. His unique methods of dealing with wit and sophistication inspired many renowned filmmakers. His eminent methodology gave way for a different kind of narrative, one that is subtle yet substantial. It can be enjoyed at the wonderfully seducing, charming and endearing Lubitschland.