Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Die Bergkatze Part I: "The Lubitsch Touch" Upon the Brechtian "Grotesque"

This is the first of three posts about R&P MPO's premiere of its new score to Ernst Lubitsh's Die Bergkatze (The Wildcat) for the St. Louis International Film Festival on November 12th at Webster University. Come back tomorrow for Part II: "The Lubitsch Touch" Upon the Brechtian Epic Theater, and come back Friday for Part III: "The Lubitsch Touch" Upon Our New Score.

It's fitting that The Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra will premiere its new score in accompaniment of Ernst Lubitsch's Die Bergkatze (The Wildcat) on November 12th, one day after Armistice Day. Die Bergkatze's original premiere occurred on November 7, 1921 - almost to the day three years after Imperial Germany's ignoble and official defeat in WWI on the first Armistice Day of November 11, 1918.

The opening title card of Die Bergkatze describes itself as a "Grotesque in Four Acts." During its first two acts especially, the film presents itself, at least superficially, as a lighthearted satire of the Weimar-era German military (and by implication, the Weimar Republic itself). The film opens one early morning on the (literally) sleepy frontier Fortress Tossenstein. The soldiers are a lackadaisical outfit, barely roused by the call of the morning bugler (who munches his breakfast in between arpeggios) and the soldiers return to their beds to sleep the moment their Kaiserly-mustached commander leaves the barracks after the morning inspection. It's an undisciplined outfit, but one gets the feeling that not much of consequence occurs at this quiet frontier outpost, so military discipline isn't really necessary.

Upon returning to his family's private quarters with his wife and daughter, the Commander receives word much to his chagrin that a Lieutenant Alexis has been transferred to Fortress Tossenstein (apparently as a punishment) and should be expected to arrive shortly. The Commander believes Lieutenant Alexis to be nothing more than a philandering dandy. At the same time, the Commander's wife and daughter, Lilli, think that Lieutenant Alexis is a handsome and heroic dreamboat.

The next scene in Die Bergkatze confirms the Commander's opinion of Lieutenant Alexis for the viewer. The scene is Alexis' farewell and departure for Fortress Tossenstein. Throngs of people (mostly young women) have filled the city square for a hero's send-off. Included among the crowd are several dozen children who shout to Alexis, "Goodbye, Daddy!" "I did ... what I could," Alexis announces faux-humbly to the gathered well-wishers. The crowd becomes more like a hysterical mob as it presses around Alexis. Alexis can hardly be made out among the throng. Soldiers act as barricades between Alexis and his admirers. Eventually, the soldiers release a bag of mice upon the (mostly female) mob to scatter it as a means of crowd control. Alexis' coach makes a break for it, and the crowd runs after attempting to follow Lieutenant Alexis as he rides out of town. The scene is a riot ... in every sense of the word.

Bertolt Brecht wrote an epic poem titled "The Legend of the Dead Soldier" in 1918 while World War I was still raging. After the war, in 1921 (the same year as Die Bergkatze premiered), Brecht set the poem to music and performed it in a Berlin cabaret. Brecht's musical performance of the poem immediately caused him to be blacklisted:
One can see why the 'Legend of the Dead Soldier' caused such a reaction. It was not only blasphemous but in the climate of a recently lost war was regarded as an insult to the German soldier and a desecration of patriotic values.
And when the war was four Springs old
And of peace there was not a breath
The soldier took the logical step
And died a hero's death.
The war however was not yet done
So the Kaiser was displeased to be sure
That his soldier had given up like that
To him it seemed premature.
The dead soldier is dug up, pronounced fit for active duty and, supported by army medics and a chaplain, marches off to the front. On his grotesque journey, his shroud now painted in the colours of the German flag, he is gradually surrounded by a cheering crowd:

So many were dancing around him now
That the soldier could hardly be seen
You could only see him from the sky above
And there only stars can gleam.
It is likely that Lubitsch and/or his co-writer Hanns Kräly were aware of Brecht's "The Legend of the Dead Soldier." All three men certainly were aware of each other and their respective work. Lubitsch and Kräly's declaring in the film's opening title card that Die Bergkatze should be considered a "Grotesque" certainly situates the film within a Brechtian ethic. At any rate the parallels between Lieutenant Alexis and the Dead Soldier are apparent, whether authorially conscious or not. Lieutenant Alexis, like the Dead Soldier, is to be dispatched to the "front." Lieutenant Alexis, like the Dead Soldier, is given a hero's farewell. Both are subsumed in a mob of admiration and patriotic fervor. Both are "heroes." Neither is capable of being an effective soldier. Their personae are projections of a nation's desire for patriotic heroes ... the idea that "war is a force that gives us meaning." Each man wears not the Emperor's new clothes but rather the Empire's new clothes.

It seems that every film critic and filmmaker has her/his own definition of the so-called "Lubitsch Touch." If there is such a thing as "The Lubitsch Touch," then perhaps it's not the kind of thing that can be boiled down to an essence, but rather has several facets ... several manifestations. Film critic William Paul defines 'The Lubitsch Touch' as "the conjunction of lightness and seriousness, of gaiety and gravity."

Whereas Brecht's conception of the Grotesque for his Dead Soldier is largely that of directly (didactically?) macabre humor (Weekend at Bernie's, anyone?), Lubitsch's conception of the Grotesque for his Lieutenant Alexis is superficially lighter yet indirectly (subtly?) (upon reflection in the light of day outside of the cinema house?) just as disconcerting, if not more disconcerting. Brecht's WWI German "Dead Soldier" is absurd and tragic; a soldier dies on the front of Europe's most horrible and absurdly unnecessary of wars, only for his carcass to be exhumed from his grave and carried back to the front. Lubitsch's Weimar-era-informed recapitulation/echo of Brecht's German "Dead Soldier" in Die Bergkatze in the character of Lieutenant Alexis is absurd ... and pathetic; a philandering dandy officer is punished for his rapscallion ways with a reassignment from his desk job to the "front" - a sleepy fortress where there's little in the way of danger or brutality save for a small gang of rather innocuous bandits who rob officers of their winter clothes.

When Die Bergkatze premiered in November of 1921, Lubitsch had already established himself as Germany's most popular and critically acclaimed directors. His films were invariably box office hits. Die Bergkatze nevertheless was a mild disappointment at the box office. Europe's most brutal and most pointless of wars and Germany's most humiliating of defeats had occurred only three years ago. Germany in 1921 was a crippled, humiliated and impoverished country. German audiences no doubt were looking for diversions from thinking about their difficult day-to-day lives and the still-fresh memories of the horrors of war. Die Bergkatze is an uproariously funny, clever, cute and romantic film. But Die Bergkatze also is imbued with the William Paul definition of "The Lubitsch Touch." It's the conjunction of the "lightness" of romantic comedy with the "seriousness" of a satirical depiction of a Weimar Germany that is a shell of its former self, and a conjunction of the "gaiety" of madcap slapstick with the "gravity" of a subject matter and setting - war - that at least on a subconscious level must have made German audiences (and European audiences, for that matter) uneasy. In 1921, Brecht's absurd and tragic provocation with his poem "The Legend of the Dead Soldier" received the harsh reaction, yet it was Lubitsch's recapitulation of The Dead Soldier as Lieutenant Alexis in the ostensibly light romantic comedy Die Bergkatze which ended up subtly and perhaps sub-consciously hitting closer to home for German audiences.

Come back tomorrow for Part II: "The Lubitsch Touch" Upon the Burlesque Grotesque

The Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra

Premieres its New Score for Ernst Lubitsch's
Die Bergkatze (The Wildcat) at the
St. Louis International Film Festival

November 12, 8PM
Webster University's Winifred Moore Auditorium
470 E. Lockwood
Webster Groves, MO

$10 for students, $12 for everybody else

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