The mid-1910s were a crucial time in the development of cinema. However due to the war that was going on German cinema was to some extent growing up in isolation, and was learning to do things its own way. Besides, in Germany they took their inspiration so much more from their own stage traditions, as we see in this Ernst Lubitsch three-reeler, a good old-fashioned farce loosely adapted from Johann Strauss II operetta Die Fledermaus.
Lubitsch however was anything but theatrical in his execution. The director seems fascinated by the possibilities that cinema offers in the field of depth, with lots of long hallways and characters entering from the back of the set rather than emerging from the wings. And it is often this use of depth which facilitates the comedy, such as Harry Liedtke's drunken lurch home, or his sudden appearance below the desk as the camera pulls back. Lubitsch even extends this trajectory out through the fourth wall, with Liedtke bemoaning his troubles directly to the audience. Characters addressing the audience was not really a done thing in American cinema. Nor was crossing the line of action, which Lubitsch does on one occasion, flipping the camera back and forth to see both sides of a car for a series of gags.
Another big difference between this and Hollywood comedy of the time is that Lubitsch has no big comedy star. Whereas funny business in the states was being lead and driven by stand-alone comics like Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle, for Das Fidele Gefangnis it's the ensemble that matters. The comedy acting here generally boils down to wildly running around and pulling silly faces, from Harry Liedtke's put-upon, forlorn look to Emil Janning's crazy eyes and wriggly moustache. Not the most sophisticated stuff but it works in the context. None of these players could have carried off a show on their own, but they don't really need to for this sort of comedy.
Das Fidele Gefangnis is in fact such a jolly, witty, absurd creation that you wouldn't think there was a war on. When you see such bizarre humour as Agda Nielson having a cigar shoved in her mouth by a hurried guest, or a cheating card-player's bottom thrust towards the camera with an Ace of Hearts stuck to it, it's hard to think of the mass slaughter that was going on not so far away at the time. And then again, perhaps it does make sense, since Ernst Lubitsch's crazed brand of humour makes for wonderful escapism.
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