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Silent Sunday Nights - November 2018
Remind Me

The Wildcat

In September of 1922, Polish actress Pola Negri, who had become a star of German cinema, arrived in New York with much fanfare, headed for Hollywood. That same year, her favorite director Ernst Lubitsch also left Germany for Hollywood, thanks to the success of historical epics like The Loves of Pharaoh (1921). Together, they had made several German films that had become international hits, including Carmen (1918) and Madame DuBarry (1919).

The Wildcat (1921), one of their last German collaborations, was an anomaly in both their careers. It was a rollicking comedy, and Lubitsch's own favorite of his German films, but it was a failure in Germany, and was never released in the U.S., so it is little known. At the time it was made, Negri was one of Germany's top dramatic actresses, and Lubitsch was one of its leading directors. They met in 1917, when both were actors in the stage production of Max Reinhardt's Arabian Nights tale Sumurun. Lubitsch, who had begun his career as a stage comic (playing what his biographer Scott Eyen described as "lovable schlemiels,") was by then also directing and acting in film comedies. He helped Negri get a contract with Ufa, Germany's largest and most important film studio, and starred her in his first dramatic film, The Eyes of the Mummy (1918), a lurid melodrama costarring Emil Jannings. It was a huge hit, and over the next three years, Lubitsch and Negri worked together on several big-budget costume dramas. But The Wildcat was like nothing either had done before.

The subtitle at the beginning of The Wildcat calls it "A Grotesque in Four Acts," and that's appropriate, but doesn't go far enough in describing the anarchic Ruritanian comic opera that ensues. Negri plays Rischka, the rowdy daughter of the leader of a band of outlaws in the Bavarian Alps that preys upon soldiers at a nearby fort. Alexis, a womanizing officer who has been exiled to the fort, apparently for neglecting his duties, is set upon by the bandits on his way there, and Rischka falls for him. There isn't much story beyond that, but there's a lot of style, wit, satire, and visual inventiveness.

Lubitsch insisted on shooting on location in the snowy mountains in the winter, and the film's exteriors are breathtaking, and unusual for the time. But they are the only thing that's realistic about The Wildcat. Some critics have called the movie a parody of Expressionist films (such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), with its outrageous and surreal sets and decor--a loopy combination of art deco, art nouveau, and stylized rococo--and exaggerated acting.

Lubitsch also spoofs the then-popular iris, or matte technique, in which a scene begins or ends with a tight circle around a section of the frame for emphasis, blacking out the rest of the frame. Instead of just circles, though, Lubitsch goes wild with mattes, using rectangles, octagons, diagonals, wavy ovals, and a jagged one that looks like shark's teeth.

The acting in The Wildcat is as stylized as the sets. Negri, who had mostly played intensely dramatic or tragic roles (and played the temperamental diva to the hilt off screen as well), is remarkably at ease in the comic role, flinging herself about, using all the physicality she had learned as a student at the Russian Imperial Ballet, running, climbing, fighting, and apparently enjoying herself enormously. Unfortunately, the German public did not enjoy her antics, and The Wildcat was a box office flop.

Lubitsch and Negri made one more film together before leaving Germany. They finally reunited for Forbidden Paradise (1924), her best American film and their only American collaboration. Negri's career faded with the coming of talking films, but Lubitsch's career soared as he found his style as a master of sophisticated comedy. And he always remained proud of The Wildcat, writing shortly before his death in 1947, "This picture had more inventiveness and satirical pictorial wit than many of my other pictures...[but] I found the German audiences in no mood to accept a picture which satirized militarism and war."

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Hanns Kraly, Ernst Lubitsch
Cinematography: Theodor Sparkuhl
Editor: Nina Goslar
Art Direction: Max Gronert, Ernst Stern
Principal Cast: Pola Negri (Rischka), Paul Heidemann (Lieutenant Alexis), Victor Janson (Fortress Commander), Marga Köhler (Fortress Commander's wife), Edith Meller (Lilli), Wilhelm Diegelmann (Claudius), Hermann Thimig (Pepo)
82 minutes

by Margarita Landazuri


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