I wrote this review for the wonderful Silent London site to celebrate the rerelease of the Lubitsch in Berlin box set, and you should read it there, as it is accompanied by five better reviews of the other films in that box set. The set is from the ever-reliable Eureka on their Masters of Cinema imprint, and I can highly recommend it.
One of the wonderful things about silent cinema is that film techniques and technologies we nowadays take for granted were still evolving. This occasionally means we get stagy affairs with huge melodramatic emotions matched to over-the-top gestural acting and a sense of decorum a hundred years removed from our own sensibilities. Sure, some may live up to this stereotype (like the 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde I recently reviewed), but for every ten of those there’s a film like Die Austernprinzessin: constantly inventive, filled with laughs, and with a satirical sense that doesn’t feel hugely out of step with anything being made today. The director is Ernst Lubitsch, who at this point was still making his name but would go on to become one of the world’s most famous directors upon moving to Hollywood in the 1930s. He even had a brand of sorts, the “Lubitsch Touch”, which is sufficiently vague a term to have prompted much subsequent speculation. Whatever it may be, he certainly does have a way with a film, no less in this early effort than in many of his ‘mature’ works.
At the heart of The Oyster Princess is a pretty full-blooded critique of capitalism; there’s certainly no pulling punches here. The “oyster king”, Mr Quaker (Victor Janson), lives in a vast mansion attended by numerous servants and has a spoilt daughter, Ossi (Ossi Oswalda). Until the very end, all that either seems to care about is this privileged life. Quaker’s catchphrase, delivered at the end of each of the movie’s four acts, is “that doesn’t impress me”. Ossi, meanwhile, who kicks off the plot with her demand to marry a prince, susbequently pays only scant attention to either the man or the relationship. Hers is an entitled world of passing whims, and she soon decides that this prince she’s been given isn’t one she likes very much after all.
But this is a comedy of manners, and part of the joke is that Prince Nucki (Harry Liedtke) has fallen on hard times, and so has sent his valet Josef (Julius Falkenstein) to check out Mr Quaker’s offer. This somewhat inevitably leads to his being confused with the prince, but given the frivolous way the Quakers live, perhaps that’s little surprise. The opening shot shows Mr Quaker smoking an unreasonably large cigar, attended by a phalanx of obsequious black servants, and whose every word is hung upon by an array of secretaries. This obscene overkill — Quaker doesn’t need so many women to transcribe his dictation, or so many handservants, as most of them have nothing to do — quickly becomes a running joke. There are serried ranks of servants to help Ossi into and out of her bath, and serving a meal is like a military drill. This is obscenely gluttonous excess for its own sake — and for our amusement.
Although the technical limitations of the period mean the camera is still largely fixed, there’s a lightness of touch in orchestrating the mise en scène, meaning these limitations are rarely noticed. Characters move around incessantly, for example. So vast is Quaker’s mansion that he, attended by his many servants, jogs from room to room. His daughter meanwhile is a whirligig of emotion, throwing everything around petulantly. At one point there’s even a dance sequence — “a foxtrot epidemic breaks out!” — allowing for various groupings around the mansion until eventually everyone, right down to the kitchen servants, is seen dancing.
It may not be surprising to devotees of Lubitsch’s work, but for one new to his cinema, what’s astonishing is that almost every moment in the film’s concise hour-long running time is filled with inventiveness and comic inspiration. Shots that prosaically bridge a gap between two scenes or just show characters listening are not for Lubitsch, and (as mentioned above) even moving between rooms is done with a humorous touch. The performances are also uniformly delightful, particularly Oswalda’s cheeky impishness and Janson’s amusingly affected stoicism.
Once again, this is another excellent Masters of Cinema release, with an exemplary transfer to DVD and a rather jaunty score perfectly matched to the action on screen. This isn’t just an excellent primer to Lubitsch’s cinema, or to silent screen comedy. It’s a marvel of a film and a joy to watch.
Director Ernst Lubitsch; Writers Hanns Kräly and Lubitsch; Cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl; Starring Ossi Oswalda, Julius Falkenstein, Victor Janson, Harry Liedtke; Length 60 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 1 February 2014.