To a wider audience, German-American director Ernst Lubitsch is probably best known for classics such as Ninotchka starring Greta Garbo, The Shop Around The Corner starring James Stewart, or his riotous satire To Be Or Not To Be starring Carole Lombard. But before his emigration to America, Lubitsch was responsible for an impressive body of work all created in his native Germany. This superb box set from Eureka’s! acclaimed “Master Of Cinema” series contains six restored Blu-ray films from the director’s silent movie period.

Varied in themes, visual style and budget too, these films are an interesting and intriguing mix of drama, fairy tale, and farce. However, each and every one already displays the famous Lubitsch touch, meaning inventiveness, elegance and sophistication.

ICH MÖCHTE KEIN MANN SEIN (I Wouldn’t Want To Be A Man) from 1918 is a cross-dresser comedy starring Lubitsch’ muse Ossi Oswalda (the German Mary Pickford) in the lead. Ossi, whose film characters were in fact always called Ossi, plays a tomboy who couldn’t give a darn about social etiquette and lady-like behaviour. When her uncle goes away on business, he leaves Ossi in the care of governess Margarete Kupfar and Dr. Kersten (Curt Götz) who vows to “crush the ill behaved girl” and teach her proper manners. Soon bored with her education, Ossi decides to indulge in a bit of cross-dressing and embarks on a gender-bending adventure that brings her, cigar smoking and all, to the decadent dance halls of Berlin. There, she plans on taking revenge on the arrogant Dr. Kersten and teach him a lesson he won’t forget in a hurry… This comedy is a pure delight to watch beginning to end, not least thanks to the obvious chemistry between Oswalda and Götz, which makes everything as sparkling as a glass of champagne.

DIE PUPPE (The Doll) from 1919 again sees Ossi Oswalda in the lead. In this fairy tale that combines live action with cut-out cardboard sets we see the director himself assembling a doll’s house from a box. As the camera zooms in, the doll’s house becomes part of the movie set and the story unfolds. When Baron Von Chanterelle (Max Kronert) urges his young nephew Lancelot (Hermann Thimig) to get married so the family tree might continue growing, Lancelot flees in terror just thinking of marriage – seeking refuge in a nearby monastery. There, the monks tell him of an exquisite toymaker called Hilarius (Victor Janson) who specialises in creating live-like mechanical dolls. Immediately, Lancelot has the idea to fool the old Baron and marry a doll instead, if only for peace and dowry’s sake. Arriving at the toymaker’s home and having inspected various creations, he then decides on purchasing one particular doll which uncannily resembles the toymaker’s own daughter, Ossi. During the business transaction and unbeknownst to Hilarious, the clumsy apprentice boy accidentally breaks the doll in the adjoining room – spelling disaster not only for himself, but his master had hoped to pay off his debts from the purchase. Quick-witted daughter Ossi quickly jumps to the rescue and now poses as her live-like mechanic double, a situation that provides the base for many laughs and misunderstandings.
Oswalda’s comic timing is flawless, while her mechanic doll-like moves and jerky facial expressions are truly believable and a hoot to watch. Innovative, bewitching and daring, DIE PUPPE no doubt counts as one of the best amongst Lubitsch’s silent movie repertoire.

In DIE AUSTERNPRINZESSIN (The Oyster Princess, 1919) we see Ossi Oswalda once more, here in the title role as the rambunctious heiress to a global oyster empire - man-ipulating her way through tons of broken glass and porcelain, all smashed regularly if things don’t go her way immediately. Offering many comical highlights, including an extended foxtrot ball scene in which the dancers move about like frenzied maniacs, and the wedding itself during which Ossi accidentally marries the servant of the intended groom, the film turns out to be another adventure filled with gags and tricks.

Much darker in tone, though occasionally spiked with rather grotesque elements of comic relief, SUMURUN (1920) is an epic tale set in the enchanted milieu of the Arabian Nights. Paul Wegener (The Golem As He Came Into The World) plays the cold-hearted sheik, while Jenny Hasselqvist is the leading and headstrong dame of Wegener’s dusky harem, despising him as much as her fate. The main cast is rounded up by Pola Negri as exotic dancer Yannaia – member of a troupe of traveling performers – and Lubitsch himself in the part of pathetic, hunchbacked minstrel Yeggar. Add to this sumptuous costumes and a cast of countless extras, and the stage is set for a melodrama of almost Shakespearean proportions.

Lubitsch decided to firmly stay within the realms of drama with his next epic, ANNA BOLEYN (1920), which by the way was the most expensive film ever to be produced during the Weimar Republic. Henny Porten rather passive-aggressively plays the doomed queen, while the great Emil Jannings is the perfect counterpart as tyrannical King Henry VIII. Whilst in later versions of the story Anne Boleyn was usually portrayed as headstrong and highly manipulative, Henny Porten’s Anne is a woman forced into marriage with King Henry, but really being in love with someone else. This somewhat changes the gravity of her fate, as does the fact that the real Anne failed to provide the King with a male heir several times (sealing her fate evermore), but in the Lubitsch version only once. Nonetheless, breath-taking sets and costumes fit for a king and queen more than make up for the lack of historic accuracy.

Finally, DIE BERGKATZE (The Wild Cat) from 1921 sees Pola Negri as female thief Rischka, member of a gang of bandits terrorizing the Bavarian Alps. Naturally, there is a love interest, which turns out to be Lieutenant Alexis (Paul Heidemann) who has been drafted in to help track down the horde of bandits! Visually one of Lubitsch’ boldest movies, it is part political satire (police and military are portrayed as rather incompetent), part expressionistic experiment, and part “German Heimatfilm”. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a total flop in Germany at the time of its release.

The box-set furthermore contains a bonus discs – Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood – about the life of the successful film director. Charting his early days when he grew up in the former Jewish quarter of Berlin, to his initial profession as an actor and comedienne (having failed apprenticeships in book-keeping and tailoring), to the heights of his career in Hollywood, this 2006 documentary is the icing on the cake! Oh, we also get a 32-page info booklet thrown in!