Essays (book reviews)

How Did Lubitsch Do It?
by Joseph McBride
(Columbia University Press, 2018, 561 pages)


His Forgotten Man

Preliminary Confession: I have loved the films of Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947) for as long as I have been a cinephile. In fact, I have often made a declaration in public that, in order to understand cinema, you really only need to understand two directors in-depth: Lubitsch and Fritz Lang. It’s an outrageous exaggeration, of course, but cinephiles love to say that type of thing – and besides, it’s also The Truth.

However, about 30 years into loving Lubitsch, I felt like I had seen all the masterpieces by him I was ever likely to see. The days of discovering (for myself, at least) Trouble in Paradise (1931), To Be or Not to Be (1942), or Heaven Can Wait (1943) were long behind me. I began dutifully sailing through the less-than-great items in his filmography, such as Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938). And, once a fan hits the shit (so to speak), such as That Uncertain Feeling (1941), you naturally figure you have reached the dregs of an auteur’s career.

Then, one day not so long ago, just for the sake of completeness, I acquired a copy of Angel (1937), starring Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall and Melvyn Douglas. I reasoned, with that superior air typical of critics: “Well, if I’ve hardly heard of it, and never managed to see it until now, it can’t be much”.

Then I watched it.

The effect on me was, quite literally, breathtaking: at the end, I was stunned. I also felt extremely chastised. The film’s complex weaving of comedy and drama; its astonishing, almost mathematical structure of character couples and triangles; its brilliant architecture of shots and cuts, words and silences, looks and gestures … How could I, over all these years, have missed such an absolute masterpiece? It instantly became – and remains – my favourite Lubitsch.

This confession is partly intended to say that, from several angles, I am the model, indeed ideal reader of Joseph McBride’s How Did Lubitsch Do It?. Or, at any rate, I should be. I acknowledge and applaud the essential energy and motivation of McBride’s project: to erect a solid monument to the greatness, the (let’s not be afraid to use this word) genius of Lubitsch. To give a complete, well-rounded picture of his entire career, spanning Germany and America. To celebrate some knack that he had which, in the context of today’s mainstream cinema, seems lost, gone, dead.

Or is it? McBride fervently hopes that, by doing his (extensive) bit to revive Lubitsch’s legacy, he might also contribute to a revival of his spirit, wit and compassion among contemporary filmmakers.

Is this quest quixotic? (Given McBride’s proximity to Orson Welles and his work, that association might be apt.) The author launches his mission in a somewhat Olde Worlde way, deliberately and proudly out of step with the ephemerality and superficiality of our digital times. To honour Lubitsch appropriately is, for McBride, a matter of writing, as sole author, a Big Book, getting it published under the imprimatur of a major university press, and presenting the rescue of Lubitsch’s reputation as an urgent salvo in a veritable cultural war: a gesture of resistance against our vulgar, trashy, dumbed-down times.

McBride wants to fashion a gesture that is, all at once, literary, polemical, almost eternal (Ernst as an Artist for All Times!), and most definitely universal (akin to how, for instance, art critic Robert Hughes wrote about Picasso). This is, one must say, a species of universalism that has 20th Century USA written all over it at the level of sensibility.

I have to admit that, in many ways, I was very disappointed by How Did Lubitsch Do It?. As someone who is inclined to find positive echoes of Lubitsch in a films as diverse as the Russian Theme (Gleb Panfilov, 1979), the modest American teen movie Secret Admirer (1985), and the work of that quasi-Bressonian joker, Eugène Green (The Son of Joseph, 2016) – rather than in, say, the strained homages executed by Peter Bogdanovich or Wes Anderson – I find McBride’s central formulation of the “Lubitsch question” along the lines indicated above (i.e., why isn’t he better known, more acclaimed and emulated?), to be somewhat grandiloquent and overstated.

In fact, I frequently find arguments based on a premise of yesterday’s gold vs. today’s junk to be nostalgic in the worst, least productive and convincing ways. It is, alas, an all-too-popular mode of public rhetoric.

On this plane, McBride quickly paints himself into a place where overstatement and exaggeration constitute almost a necessary rhetorical stance: Lubitsch, he declares over and over, is virtually unknown today, completely forgotten! It is always a treacherous business to argue over which films and filmmakers of the past are now underappreciated, and exactly where and why. But Lubitsch – with numerous (if not exhaustive) DVD/Blu-ray releases, generous festival retrospectives, and a keen (as well as vocal) cinephile following all over the world – is hardly someone I would assess as teetering on an abyss of oblivion. This is as absurd as saying that (for example) Max Ophüls is today without champions.

A little more perspective and context are required here. Lubitsch is only one of many directors who deserve an authoritative Big Book – if that is truly what we believe any of them really need to secure and carry forward their reputation or artistic status. Do Josef von Sternberg, F.W. Murnau, Frank Borzage, Leo McCarey, Ida Lupino, George Cukor and a dozen others of that stature have (in English, at any rate) monumental books that are worthy of them? (Lang does – in the form of Tom Gunning’s The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity [2000] – but I doubt whether that unashamedly intellectual tome would constitute a model for McBride.) Or are the scattered articles online, the globally diverse programming and curatorial homages, the anthologies of diverse essays in various languages, enough to be going on with?

Let’s be frank: for besotted cinephiles, there will never be enough good stuff out there in the public sphere on our most beloved directors. But that doesn’t mean that nothing valuable already exists. As always, the most urgent cultural job is to tie those existing threads together in meaningful ways.

To some extent, this is exactly what McBride does. After many years devoted to writing biographies of figures such as Frank Capra, John Ford and Steven Spielberg, McBride returns – as he avows in his opening pages – to a form of critical writing he first practised in works such as John Ford (1974), co-written with the late Michael Wilmington (a book of which I have fond memories from my teenage years as a budding cinephile).

In fact, How Did Lubitsch Do It? veers, sometimes uneasily, between three options: biography, critical survey, and the strange hybrid in-between those two, namely critical biography (of the sort that Chris Fujiwara attempted, not without difficulty, in his The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger [2007]).

McBride sticks to the chronology of Lubitsch’s life and work, allowing himself to indulge an occasional biographical fantasia – like visiting the sites of his subject’s formative years, or finding the traces of early life experiences recreated and transformed in scenes of his later work.

Otherwise, for general social context, McBride leans on commentators from Barbara Tuchman to Walter Benjamin; he also takes understandable advantage of the enviable luxury of having known certain major filmmakers (from Welles and Billy Wilder to Jean Renoir and François Truffaut) well enough to be able to cite their random opinions and/or reminiscences of the Great Man in question. (The book’s title comes from the famous sign that Wilder placed, as a constant inspiration and prompt, on his office wall.)

But what about the critical-analytical aspect? Although a Professor in the Cinema Department of San Francisco State University, McBride sometimes betrays a suspicious aversion to academic approaches to his subject (despite quotations from William Paul, and valuable insights fed in from his personal conversations with Anton Kaes, Jean Douchet and some other fine brains).

Early in the book, he blasts E. Ann Kaplan’s 1981 piece – admittedly, not one of her best – that pegged Lubitsch as “of little interest to feminists”. Later, in discussing Lubitsch’s German work as both actor and director, he misreads, rather seriously in my opinion, a special 1968 Lubitsch issue of Cahiers du cinéma in which Jean-Louis Comolli asserted: “One can claim without exaggeration that Der Stolz der Firma [1914] (and no doubt the entire series to which it belongs) is the most anti-Semitic work ever made … if Ernst Lubitsch weren’t Jewish himself!” McBride characterises this text as “intemperate” but, in truth, Comolli went on to argue that the fact of Lubitsch’s Jewishness makes these films usefully Brechtian, because they subvert ethnic stereotypes from within.

But there are more serious problems along this academic-aversion trail. McBride takes his distance from what he regards as overly formalistic analyses of Lubitsch’s films – without precisely indicating which analyses, by which authors, he is placing in this category. (Comolli’s later work on To Be or Not to Be, undertaken with historian François Géré in the late ‘70s, could be on McBride’s black list!) McBride argues – and it’s hard, in broad terms, to disagree with this, at least initially – that formalist treatments of Lubitsch can too easily lose touch with the infectious laughter, the essential humanity and the wellspring of emotion that so richly fill Lubitsch’s cinema.

But what is a true analyst to do? Outlining the mechanics of a gag always runs the risk of deflating its humour, yet it’s a risk that must be taken for the sake of actually illuminating something – as critics as diverse as Fujiwara on Jerry Lewis, Jean-Pierre Coursodon on Buster Keaton, Stanley Cavell on Preston Sturges and Frieda Grafe on Lubitsch (she, at least, is quoted approvingly by McBride) have long shown.

The alternative to such illumination is a more wishy-washy kind of appreciative writing, easy on the reader and (as the dreadful expression goes) wearing its learning lightly. McBride is comfortable swimming in the pool of more-or-less populist American critics such as Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell, and he is fond of citing James Harvey (author of Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, 1987), who is the best exponent of this generalist approach to writing about screen comedy’s Golden Age: very stylish prose, not too technical, not too intellectual or theoretical, but not pandering to the lowest common denominator, either.

McBride does not manage to pull off the delicate balancing act of Harvey’s literary poise: too often, he reduces himself to a litany of admiring observations about Lubitsch’s “delightful”, “effortless”, “graceful”, “inventive”, “sophisticated” and “subtle” work, with its “impeccable timing”, “adroit handling”, and whatnot. If I came across such descriptions in the context of capsule reviews – McBride’s 5001 Nights at the Movies (après Pauline Kael), say – I wouldn’t mind them so much; but, in the context of the Definitive Big Book, something is definitively lacking here. (1)

When it comes to Lubitsch, film-formalism (however we define or practise that) is hard to avoid, for one, very clear reason: Lubitsch is (like Lang) among the most formalistic directors in the medium’s history! His control of framing, editing and image-sound relationships (McBride has a pretty deaf ear when it comes to the rich sound design dimension of Lubitsch) is not only extraordinary – it also, as a matter of principle, draws attention to itself as spectacle. If you’re not seeing, hearing and enjoying the patterns – patterns of every kind, on every level – in Lubitsch, you are not really experiencing Lubitsch. In fact, you’re not even getting the richest jokes/gags.

An example: the opening train carriage scene of Design for Living (1933), played out between Gary Cooper, Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. It’s pure Eisenstein, at a level of rapid-fire virtuosity that not even Sergei attained: a riot of graphic matches between shots, a choreography of ever-shifting bodies and small gestures, constant switches in point-of-view … and all resting on the aural gag of the characters babbling (for minutes on end) in unsubtitled French, until a very American exclamation (“Oh, nuts!”) finally breaks the tension.

Now, how does McBride deal with this scene? He describes it as “a lengthy silent sequence that seems designed to assert the primacy of film over the stage”. He later mentions the French dialogue and the nuts, and recaps the scene as a “Lubitschean flourish”. And that’s it.

In McBride’s view, Design for Living mostly inaugurates Lubitsch’s move toward the “invisible storytelling methods” that gradually became dominant in Hollywood’s classical era – and the director’s full adoption of this mantle of invisibility was made evident in (of all things) Angel in 1937. As a certified Lubitschean formalist, I could not agree less with this claim. Form is, quite simply, never a flourish in Lubitsch: it’s the core, the substance of what he achieved.

A different kind of problem: McBride is a very repetitive writer. The same ideas, themes, facts – sometimes almost the exact same phrases – pop up over and over again in the course of this book. (He – or his editors – should have read large chunks of the manuscript aloud; I estimate that around a quarter of the manuscript could have been pruned with the purging of such repetitions.) It’s not quite like Theodor Adorno’s notorious prose style of parataxis in his unfinished opus Aesthetic Theory (1970) – where the author grinds through endless restatements and tiny rephrasings of the same initial morsels, very occasionally moving the central idea forward a notch – but it sometimes gets close.

Naturally, some recapitulation is necessary to reorient readers in the course of a long book. But let me demonstrate McBride’s excessive compulsion to repeat by taking a random example sliced between pages 36 and 43, in the chapter “Herr Ernst Lubitsch”. The period of the Weimar Republic in Germany (and particularly Berlin) is first described as a time of “financial and political turmoil”. In the very next paragraph, McBride evokes the “frenzied topsy-turvy mood of Berlin and other parts of Germany” in those years of “upheaval”, “ruinous war” and “political unrest”. Still in that same paragraph, there’s “violent social unrest” and “political turmoil”, not to mention “turbulent social change”.

Next page: a “rapidly changing world” and an “unsettled present”. Next page: “rapidly evolving social mores” and “traditional social structures precipitously nearing collapse”, along with “social unrest and governmental upheavals”. Next page: “violent social transformations” and “social ferment”. Two pages on: “that turbulent time of violently clashing ideologies […] as well as rapid changes in social mores”. And finally, the “even-more-dizzying social upheavals of the Weimar years as reflected in the changing social climates” of Lubitsch’s films, which are set in “times of violent change”.

You get the idea.

All throughout these same pages, other notions – such as Lubitsch’s access to cheap labour on his historical spectaculars, and his status as an outsider (with, alas, no nod to filmmaker-author Edgardo Cozarinsky’s superb 1985 essay, “Lubitsch as Outsider”) – are also repeated several times. The sum effect is rather maddening.

Another issue: for a book that sets itself defiantly against the trash of modern culture, perhaps it should not be altogether surprising that McBride makes so little reference to Lubitsch-related writings of all kinds (fan, scholarly, cinephile) that exist on the Internet. From my vantage point, he thereby skips out on acknowledging the most important work published on this supposed Forgotten Man Lubitsch over the past two decades: Joe McElhaney on Cluny Brown (1946), Dorian Stuber and Marian Tettlebaum on To Be or Not to Be, William Routt’s magisterial survey essay “Innuendo” (2) – and so much more. And I’m arbitrarily staying within the prison-house of the English language so far: how about, for instance, Charlotte Garson’s ongoing French articles, lectures and podcasts on American romantic comedy? Or the work of Marc Cerisuelo? It’s a big world of Lubitsch connoisseurship out there online, and in languages other than English.

My overriding impression of How Did Lubitsch Do It? is that despite – or because of – its size, it is a thinly stretched text. And not only due to the prose repetitions. McBride sets out with a bold and sparkling set of assertions pro Lubitsch: he’s an almost unfailingly inventive filmmaker; he showed tender compassion toward almost all his central characters; his movies were never apolitical; he fashioned a complex mix of drama and comedy; he subverted censorship by way of an ingeniously coded system of filmic and narrative expression. (On that last point, though – the complicated dance between externally imposed repression and internally generated expression – I was surprised to see McBride overlook the late Brian Henderson’s brilliant discussion in his 1978 Film Quarterly article “Romantic Comedy Today: Semi-Tough or Impossible?”, which makes extensive reference to Lubitsch.)

All these are undoubtedly good, provocative places from which to start. But, as he churns through each film in turn, McBride tends to merely reassert his broad claims, time and again.

The key problem here is McBride’s approach to film analysis – or rather, his lack thereof. In every case, McBride tends to proceed in the same way: he highlights a few key images, scenes, character interactions; he relates production details; he might note (usually perceptively) some aspect of its narrative construction; he gives a sense of the surrounding social and historical context that Lubitsch was indirectly addressing. But it’s a picky, piecemeal mode of analysis; there is never a holistic sense of how any one film works – of its system, the way it unfolds as both content and form rigorously and ingeniously combined. To be a true Lubitschean you must strive to be as systematic as Ernst himself was!

Now, I am not demanding structuralist-semiotic diagrams from McBride here; that’s definitely not his style. But think, for a more apt comparison, of Robin Wood; even in the early director study Hitchcock’s Films (first edition 1965), Wood was able to deftly evoke the entire orientation, shape, thematic concerns and modulating movement of each film he addressed. Likewise with James Harvey at his best.

With McBride on Lubitsch, however, we are too often stuck with the same old litany of delightful-graceful-subtle adjectives, and the same tiresome invocation of the filmmaker’s humanist outlook. My ultimate disappointment with this book condensed itself into a simple question that had not yet found its answer by page 561: so, after all, how did Lubitsch do it?

NOTES (March 2023)

1. Five years after writing this review, I read Mark Rappaport’s disapproving (if politely allusive) commentary on McBride’s subsequent Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge (Columbia University Press, 2021). Rappaport offers a similar appraisal of the standard technique of critical appreciation. In the course of a diagnostic survey of the state of film criticism in its most common practices, he remarks (my free translation from the French translation in Trafic L’Almanach de cinéma 2023):

These thoughts came to me recently upon reading a book by someone that I vaguely know, more a Facebook friend than a real friend. The book is a 700-page appreciation of the films of Billy Wilder – in other words, not a critical examination of his work, but rather an exhaustive celebration of all that is Billy Wilder, with numerous words like superb, extraordinary or excellent taking up pages of text. No film analysis. No critical thought concerning context, structure, mise en scène or indeed any of the essential subjects that constitute pertinent film criticism. back

2. All three texts appeared in issues of LOLA that I co-edited between 2011 and 2016. back


© Adrian Martin October 2018 (+ update March 2023)

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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