“If you tickle us, do we not laugh?”: The evolution of the Jewish identity in the films of Ernst Lubitsch

Clara--Alexander_Binder_-_Ernst_Lubitsch_um_1920  “Ernst Lubitsch, Deutsches Theater, Berlin.” The title card striates to the point of near-illegibility. “Der Darsteller der Titelrolle.” It’s 1914, and the star of Der Stolz der Firma (The Pride of the Firm) is only 22 years old. The camera catches him smiling, stage left. As the opening credits roll, he turns gives the audience a long, toothy grin. With his thin face and large, intense eyes, the effect is mildly alarming—a nebbish, Semitic B-movie vampire. The film was a smash hit, though it hasn’t aged as gracefully as his more mature work. The vaudevillian humor and close, choppy cinematography seem out of place in a Lubitsch picture. That’s understandable, for such an early film. What’s more surprising is its overt Jewishness.

Lubitsch plays a stock character from his time at the Deutsches Theater: a promising young employee at a women’s clothing concern. Most of his early films are set in the world of garment manufacturing in early 20th century Germany, an industry dominated by Jews. It’s a career path that, as the son of a Berlin tailor, he had only recently abandoned for the stage. There’s a clear semi-autobiographical element to characters with names like Abramowsky, Rosenthal, Pinkus, and Katz—clever, womanizing social climbers so steeped in stereotype that the films have been accused of anti-Semitism. In keeping with Weimar-era fears of ‘perverse’ Jewish male sexuality, his Abies and Sallys pursue gentile women. Most of them rise in social class, and all of them use cunning to get ahead. It’s never enough to hide their origins completely—not that it would have been possible for Lubitsch, whose face was featured on a series 1935 propaganda posters bearing the legend “The Archetypal Jew”. As for any ambitious Jew in Weimar Berlin, the odds are against them, and success requires a certain facility for acting. Continue reading ““If you tickle us, do we not laugh?”: The evolution of the Jewish identity in the films of Ernst Lubitsch”