Critics who write about Ernst Lubitsch's great romantic comedies often refer to the "European" flavor of his Hollywood work, so it's especially intriguing to view this recently rediscovered silent comedy Lubitsch made in his native Germany in 1917. Ein Fideles Gefängnis ("The Merry Jail") is an adaptation of the libretto from Johann Strauss' operetta Die Fledermaus, and while it lacks the sophistication and nuance of the director's later work, it's nonetheless an interesting film in its own right, distinctly different from the Hollywood product of the time --or later, for that matter. In some respects, this movie looks primitive compared to contemporaneous American productions, but in others (such as the bluntly presented homosexuality of one character), it goes beyond anything Hollywood filmmakers, including Lubitsch himself, were permitted to explore for many years to come.
Even if you're unfamiliar with the Strauss operetta this adaptation may feel familiar, for it uses a frequently recycled plot device: this is the story of Alice, a rich but neglected wife, who disguises herself and follows her drunken playboy of a husband to a society gala, where she leads him on. Ignorant of her true identity, he flirts happily, unaware that he's contemplating an "extra-marital" affair with his own wife. (And he certainly must be blotto, since her disguise consists of little more than an evening gown and a Lone Ranger-style mask.) Meanwhile, other frolics are under way: there's a light-hearted flirtation between Alice and Egon Storch, the odd little man who admires her; there's outright carousing by Alice's maid and a sloshed aristocrat; and there's even more boisterous behavior by a drunken jailer named Quabbe towards various men who capture his fancy. Quabbe is played by Emil Jannings, whose makeup suggests Keystone comic Chester Conklin gone to seed, and even modern viewers might be startled when he kisses one inmate on the lips, strokes the arm of another, and tells the warden that he really, really likes him. This is a Merry Jail indeed! (But wouldn't "The Gay Jail" have been a better title?)
This movie paints a colorful and somewhat disturbing picture of Germany during the Great War. Film textbooks pay lots of attention to the postwar Weimar-era silent classics such as Caligari and Nosferatu, and they are frequently screened and widely available, but it isn't often one finds a wartime German production. No direct reference is made to the conflict, but during the masked ball it's noticeable that several of the dancing pairs are women, suggesting a lack of available men. It's also noticeable that most of the men on hand are extremely drunk, suggesting an exhausted culture in search of alcoholic oblivion. Most of these characters are both privileged and idle, protected from having to serve in the military by their social positions. I wonder if this movie was seen by German soldiers, and how they felt about fighting for the sake of these frivolous people.
The acting technique on display in Ein Fideles Gefängnis is one of the film's drawbacks. These actors mug, over-react, and occasionally turn to the camera to rattle off silent speeches, a silly device one finds in such early features as Mack Sennett's Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914), but which most filmmakers outgrew by the late 'teens. An even bigger drawback is the leading man's sheer unattractiveness. Harry Liedtke, the actor who plays Alex Von Reizenstein, is not bad looking, but his character is totally unappealing. Who could care about this guy or his marriage? He's a spoiled, irresponsible, hopelessly wasted cad who vomits in his hat, bribes his wife to silence her complaints, and flirts shamelessly while claiming to be a bachelor-- although, frankly, he appears far too dissolute to actually consummate an affair. This guy isn't just a naughty rogue, he's a slob, and his wife Alice the cheerful bribe-taker isn't much better. The most likable characters are Mizi the maid and funny little Egon Storch, two people who are at least candid about their desires, in contrast with Alex and Alice, whose relationship seems to be built entirely on deceit. The supporting players give this comedy its best moments.
At any rate, despite its flaws, this film provides a rare glimpse into a dying culture in its final days, and a fascinating introduction to a great director at the dawn of his career.
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