#32 in my ranking of Ernst Lubitsch’s filmography.
I don’t think Ernst Lubitsch’s comic sensibilities lent themselves that well towards vaudeville and slapstick. His was a more urbane and witty comedy that wasn’t the best fit with things like physical comedy. His recurring character of Sally Meyer (formerly Pinkus from Shoe Palace Pinkus) was a successful attempt at making a German version of Charlie Chaplin, at least contemporaneously. I don’t think the character aged all that well, but Meyer from Berlin wasn’t exactly a terrible experience. It was largely fine. Not hilarious, but far from a drag, it was a slightly amusing diversion for an hour, and little else.
Sally Meyer (Lubitsch) has decided that he’s tired of life in Berlin (technically the area of Schoneberg) and his wife Paula (Ethel Orff). He feigns an illness and convinces his doctor to prescribe a change of scenery, which the doctor quickly does. It’s these early scenes that demonstrate to me that Lubitsch wasn’t anywhere close to Chaplin’s level, mostly the bits where Lubitsch throws himself from out of bed into bed. It’s the kind of physical movement that lends itself to precise timing and extravagant result. Imagine a man jumping into bed in such a way that the impact causes things to precisely fall into place around him. Instead, Meyer simply jumps into bed and inelegantly arranges the sheets around him twice. It’s the effort at a physically comedic joke but without the precise follow through required to make it hilarious.
Well, Meyer goes to Switzerland alone, decked out in climbing gear, and happy to make friendly with every attractive young woman he comes along (making him a really skeevy character from the outset), and when he gets to Switzerland he ends up focusing on Kitty (Trude Troll), a woman with a new husband Harry (Heinz Landsmann) who is away as she spends her time at the mountain resort surrounded by young, attractive men vying for her attention. As she explains to Harry in a letter, she decides to give Meyer her time because he’s harmless, and if she gives her attention to one of the men, the rest will back off (it doesn’t work).
It’s in this stuff where Lubitsch’s strengths manage to make themselves known, with some wittiness in the limited intertitles and in the interactions between Meyer and Kitty as well as the other suitors. It’s one of the more consistently reliable sources of comedy in the film.
The action of the film directs Meyer and Kitty to climb the mountain while, at the same time, Paula and Harry decide to come to the mountain retreat to find their spouses on the same train. There’s something not quite right about how this works out, the two storylines only seem to converge late in the game, and it feels like they should start earlier. Meyer and Kitty are up to the top of the mountain by the time the Paula and Harry storyline even gets introduced, and there’s an inherent bit of tension that could have been drawn from the situation, however Lubitsch introduces the counterbalance of the equation too late for it to really work. They only start their journey after Meyer and Kitty have reached the top of the mountain, so it feels oddly incongruent to what’s going on.
Still, when the two storylines do intersect, it’s the sort of comedy that suddenly fits Lubitsch’s milieu, and it makes me wonder if the entire effort to make the film was based on the idea of the ending where two people, trying to cheat on their spouses, are suddenly confronted with the presences of their spouses in the one place where they shouldn’t be. It’s amusing as it plays out, but the efforts to get the characters to that point don’t really seem to justify everything to actually get there.
On balance, Meyer from Berlin is slightly amusing pretty consistently. Spaced out throughout the film are funny little moments here and there that work on their own, and the story itself is built well enough to function. However, the story is anchored by a skeev who nakedly sets out to cheat on his wife, and the ending doesn’t feel well built enough. Lubitsch had made worse up to this point in his career, but he’d also made a fair bit better.
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