Die Puppe (1919)
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Cast: Ossi Oswalda, Hermann Thimig, Victor Janson
Synopsis: Because the Baron of Chanterelle wants to preserve his family line, he forces his timid nephew Lancelot to choose one of the village maidens to wed.
Ernst Lubitsch’s Die Puppe begins with the director himself constructing a simple set which establishes that the quirky story that is about to unfold is one of fantasy and make-believe. There’s a fairy-tale element to the plot which frees it from the constraints of reality, and Lubitsch immediately makes his audience aware of this by having his hero Lancelot (Hermann Thimig) emerge from the house the director has just erected. Lancelot is a name that brings to mind knights in shining armour, but our hero in Die Puppe is actually something of an effeminate wimp, and immediately falls into a pond as he leaves his house.
Lancelot is the nephew to the ailing Baron von Chanterelle (Max Kronert) who frets that Lancelot, his only male relative, is unmarried and won’t therefore carry on the family line. The baron insists that Lancelot must find himself a wife if he wishes to collect his inheritance. He even arranges for all the young girls of the village to be gathered together so that Lancelot can choose one of them, setting in motion a chase sequence that foreshadows Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances but which, in reality, more closely resembles one of those Benny Hill sketches in which people run back and forth across the screen in fast motion to the ‘Yakety Sax’ tune. Finally managing to shake off the wannabe wives, Lancelot seeks refuge in a nearby monastery where the monks secretly gorge themselves on legs of mutton while claiming penury to the outside world. It’s a pretty dim view of the church which is compounded by the monks’ greed when they learn of the terms of the Baron’s will.
One of the monks knows of an inventor named Hilarius (Victor Janson), who can make life-size dolls that look like humans, and suggests that Lancelot marries one of these and gives his inheritance to the church. Lancelot thinks this is a boffo idea and immediately heads for Hilarius’s workshop. However, unknown to Hilarius, his newest doll, created in the likeness of his daughter Ossi (Ossi Oswalda), has been broken by his hapless apprentice (Gerhard Ritterband), and Ossi is standing in as a replacement while the apprentice secretly repairs the doll. Of course, Lancelot ends up buying Ossi under the impression that she is a doll. In effect, Ossi is a girl pretending to be a doll which Lancelot is hoping to pass off as a girl!
Die Puppe is a lot of fun, and manages to contain quite a few laughs despite its age. It pre-dates the German impressionist movement with its painted sets, although the designs in Die Puppe are much lighter and more like a fairy tale. In fact, Lubitsch makes a deliberate effort to avoid reality throughout the movie, despite some darker elements creeping in at times. For example, the apprentice, distraught at breaking Hilarius’s doll, repeatedly attempts to commit suicide by drinking paint (Lubitsch combines this with humour by having Hilarius scold the child for trying to waste expensive paint). Seconds after this, he might cut to a comical shot of a horse — clearly two men in a pantomime suit — sitting on its haunches. In the hands of some this blending of darkly bizarre touches with childlike humour wouldn’t work, but Lubitsch somehow manages to keep the overall tone light and humorous.
Ossi Oswalda, a regular leading lady for Lubitsch early in his career, provides a decent performance as the girl who masquerades as a doll, even though her comic style is perhaps a little too broad for modern tastes, with exaggerated gestures and face-pulling. She does have nice legs, though; an attribute Lubitsch seems keen to show off whenever he can. It’s Ritterband, as the mischievous apprentice, who steals the movie, however, and on the strength of his performance here it’s a shame that he didn’t go on to have a more distinguished screen career.
(Reviewed 21st April 2013)