Anna Boleyn displays the early “Lubitsch touch.”
ANNA BOLEYN (Ernst Lubitsch) Rating: NNN
Before emigrating to the U.S. and directing sophisticated Euro-flavoured Hollywood musicals and sex comedies like The Love Parade and Trouble In Paradise, Ernst Lubitsch made his name in Germany with his internationally successful costume dramas Madame DuBarry and Anna Boleyn.
In the latter film, Lubitsch takes on King Henry VIII, the man who started a new religion just to have his way with women. Well, I guess this counts as sex comedy, too.
Anna Boleyn screens as part of the Goethe-Institut's retrospective of Lubitsch's pre-Hollywood silent films (which also includes Sumurun and The Wildcat) and the documentary Ernst Lubitsch In Berlin. Though these titles are on Kino's Lubitsch In Berlin DVD set, they play at the Camera with live musical accompaniment on a big screen that let's you appreciate the director's meticulous framing.
In Lubitsch's story of that Boleyn girl, Emil Jannings (The Last Laugh) plays Henry as a pompous and at times sympathetic philanderer with a larger-than-life appetite; he crawls into a scene just to eat it all up. Anna (Henny Porten) is the earnest and victimized dish that Henry ogles.
The film's sets and costumes are lavish for the time but now seem dated, and the plot is tied down by the predictability of a historical story that has been covered from every angle since. The joy comes in finding the famed "Lubitsch touch" in a film that predates the term. It's there in the tiny gestures of Porten's performance (speaking volumes more than Natalie Portman's did in the same role), in the director's innovative playfulness with masking and especially in those lingering picturesque compositions that emphasize minor narrative details and shed light on the entire film.
An economical shot of an infant Queen Elizabeth left crying in a vast empty drawing room is all Lubitsch needs to tell his story about influential women left powerless by pig-headed men.
Screens October 7 as part of Ernst Lubitch: The Berlin Years 1919-1921 (at the Camera until October 21).