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Before his brilliant Hollywood career as a director of sparkling sex comedies, Ernst Lubitsch starred (and directed himself) in a long series of silent comedies (most of them four reels long) in Germany. He typically played a pushy Jewish character, and many of his early comedies featured up-to-the-minute slang and Yiddishisms in the dialogue titles. Although the name of Lubitsch's onscreen character varied from one film to the next, his characterisation was a fairly consistent one.
'Meyer from Berlin' is a standard entry in the series, and it's pretty good. In the opening scene, a Berlin doctor gets a letter from Meyer, asking him to visit Meyer's house to diagnose Meyer for an (imaginary) illness and to prescribe a long holiday, so that Meyer can get away from his wife. From this set-up, we expect Meyer's wife to be an ugly shrew. The next scene shows Meyer at home in bed, pretending to be ill. But Frau Paula Meyer turns out to be an attractive young woman in a fetching nightie, who genuinely cares about her husband. I can't see why he's so eager to get away from her... unless it's that whacking huge bottle labelled 'Castor Oil' that she keeps brandishing.
Soon enough, Meyer is off to the Tyrol, dressed in lederhosen and brandishing an alpenstock. He straight away introduces himself to an attractive young lady named Kitty. Several other men are also pressing their attentions upon Kitty, but Meyer uses some clever stratagems to get her all for himself. Kitty's husband Harry is elsewhere, but she decides to feign interest in Meyer (the least threatening man in the hotel) so as to discourage all the other men.
Complications ensue. Eventually Harry and Paula (travelling together, as if they were a married couple) catch up with Meyer and Kitty (ditto) in an Alpine lodge, where each cross-couple spends the night without realising the other couple is there too.
There are some very funny gags in this film, even though Lubitsch is required to remind us constantly that his onscreen character is a scheming Jew. At one point, to impress Kitty, Meyer agrees to climb a 2800-metre mountain. The night before the ascent, he has a trick-photography nightmare in which a mountain labelled '2800' materialises next to his bed. Meyer casually removes the two noughts, and the mountain (now only 28 metres high) obligingly dwindles. But this sight gag is spoilt by an unfunny Jewish-stereotype joke ... speaking directly to the camera, Lubitsch adds: 'I knew I could haggle with that mountain.' In other words, a Jew will always haggle. Ha ha, how unfunny.
There are some very delightful exterior sequences of Weimar Germany, and these have a charming air of cinema-verite; while Lubitsch is doing something in the foreground, the real people in the background (not actors) are doing something completely unrelated to his actions. The interiors are less successful than the exteriors: Meyer and his wife Paula have an absolutely gigantic bedroom with a very high ceiling: this room is so huge, it's clearly a film set rather than a room where real people sleep.
There's a funny (and kinky) sequence in the Alpine lodge, when Meyer kneels in front of Kitty to undo the long, long, LONG bootlaces on her elegant knee-high boots, while he tells her 'I used to work in a shoe store.' This may be an in-joke reference to 'Shoepalace Pincus', a previous film starring Lubitsch that had been a big box-office hit.
'Meyer from Berlin' is a fascinating look at an early phase of Lubitsch's career, with his directorial skills already firmly in place. I'll rate this movie 7 out of 10.
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