This book review is a part of the 2020 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher’s Out of the Past blog. Click here for a list of the classic film books I am reading this summer and here for a list of the reviews from others written so far.
Of all the silent directors who emigrated from Europe to Hollywood, Ernest Lubitsch was arguably the most successful and popular director. After becoming world-famous for his German comedies and costume dramas such as Madame DuBarry and Anna Boleyn (both 1920), Lubitsch signed with Warner Brothers in 1923 and became one of the leading Hollywood directors, working well into the sound era. Most classic film fans are probably familiar with such later Lubitsch pictures as To Be or Not to Be, The Shop Around the Corner, and Ninotchka but may not have seen or even heard of some of his silent films like The Oyster Princess, Rosita, or Lady Windemere’s Fan to name a few.
In Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood, Kristin Thompson uses Lubitsch’s career in Germany and America to examine the relationship between German and American filmmaking practices and techniques before, during, and after World War I. Because of Luistch’s successful implementation of German filmmaking techniques in his early career and the Hollywood style of filmmaking throughout the 1920s, he is the ideal director to study to best understand the impact of Hollywood filmmaking on German filmmaking and vice versa.
After a brief history of Lubitsch’s films and the films he made in the silent era in both Germany and America, Thompson investigates German and Hollywood practices and styles of lighting, set design, editing, and acting, using a chapter for each film aesthetic. She begins each chapter by describing the prevailing theories, practices, and applications of each film aesthetic in Germany and America in the 1910s and 1920s, using quotes from contemporary filmmakers and critics as well as examples from prominent films of the period. She then precedes to look at examples at Lubitsch’s films to explore how he applied both German and American filmmaking techniques into his silent pictures.
Thompson uses plenty of diagrams and photographs to help the reader follow along with and visualize her arguments (HLCTH 160)
For example, in the chapter focused on lighting, Thompson describes the new lighting techniques of American film studios in the late 1910s that came about when filmmakers replaced their glass studios filled with natural light and built dark studios with artificial lights. The American use of artificial lighting is compared to the films made in German glass studios in the 1910s and early 1920s. Thompson then shows examples from both German and American films of the period that use both lighting setups. After this background is established, we are ready to dive into Lubitsch’s filmography to discuss how he implemented artificial and three-point lighting in his 1920s films.
I was impressed by the depth of the analysis throughout. Thompson isn’t satisfied with merely stating claims in inaccessible academic jargon but always drives the point home for the reader to understand her argument. For example, Thompson doesn’t just state that Lubitsch mastered classic Hollywood continuity editing by the mid-1920s but uses numerous examples from his films to show the reader just exactly how Lubitsch gradually mastered this technique. She frequently describes a single scene in-depth, almost shot by shot, and provides stills from the film for the reader to follow along with. This aspect of the book allowed me to soak in all of the information and see what Thompson was describing in action. For a visual learner like myself, the over 200 illustrations in the book proved to be of the utmost use.
A shot by shot analysis of a scene from Die Flamme (1923) showing Lubitsch’s use of continuity editing (HLCTH 189)
I was also impressed with how Thompson frames Hollywood continuity filmmaking. When people speak about the Hollywood narrative style of filmmaking, there is a tendency, especially for American scholars, to speak of Hollywood films or their style as more advanced than other countries. People sometimes make it seem like the well-polished style of 1920s Hollywood films was exactly what films were made to be and that other styles of filmmaking were inferior or archaic. While Thompson states that some techniques (i.e. continuity editing) more economically display information to the viewer, she does not fall into the pitfall of dismissing earlier works that do not implement Hollywood continuity editing and framing, either those earlier films directed by Lubitsch or others.
Although the scope of the book is much larger than Lubitsch himself, Thompson’s detailed examination of Lubitsch’s silent-era films adeptly examines the evolution of Lubistchs’s directorial style and the Lubitsch touch. After finishing Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood I am eager to pick up a biography of Ernest Lubitsch himself and seek out more European and American silent films, this time looking for specific aspects of lighting, set design, editing, and acting discussed in the book. For any fans of Ernest Lubitsch’s films or silent films in general, I highly recommend picking up Thompson’s book to study for yourself.