THE DOLL Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1919

We commissioned a new score by Diane Jones
Ossi Oswalda, Hermann Thimig, Victor Janson, and Gerhard Ritterband Production Projektions AG Union Print Source Filmarchiv Austria

From an Essay on The Doll by Farran Smith Nehme

Deliciously weird for 1919 or any other year, Ernst Lubitsch’s Die Puppe (The Doll) declares its intent to please from the first shot. An appealing twenty-seven-year-old Lubitsch himself is the first person to appear, as he refuses to look his own camera in the eye. Instead, from a toy box he busily assembles a cute little diorama composed of a felt lawn and an S-curved driveway, a series of cutout trees on pencil-size trunks, and a house with one door, one window, and a removable roof. He opens the house, places two dolls inside, and presto—the story begins. Our director is the doll-maker’s doll-maker, E.T.A. Hoffman with a camera, manipulating the characters for all they are worth.

Lubitsch made seven movies that year, as his career roared into high gear and his comic vision took shape. Born in Berlin in 1892, he began as a comic actor playing ethnic roles, often as a Jewish character named Meyer. He was a good actor, but Lubitsch gradually discovered that he was an even better writer and director. He’d made his mark as a “serious” director only the year before, with an exotic Egyptian horror outing called Die Augen der Mumie Ma (The Eyes of the Mummy Ma) starring Pola Negri. Thereafter Lubitsch’s time in Berlin was somewhat oddly divided between lush historical dramas such as Madame Dubarry, with the heavy-breathing duo of Negri and Emil Jannings, and comedies, of which The Doll is an enchanting example.

Written by Lubitsch and frequent collaborator Hanns Kräly, from the same Hoffmann story that gave us the ballet Coppélia, this fairy tale has even less truck with dreary reality than the all-dancing version. Made at Germany’s Ufa the year before The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Doll unfolds like a mad picture-book come to life. The backdrops are mostly forced perspective, full of slanted picture frames and out-of-scale doorways. One character’s kitchen has the hanging pots and pans painted straight onto the flats. A carriage arrives pulled by two horses that are actually four men in vaudeville-style horse costumes. When one of the string tails falls off, the coachman casually sticks it right back where it belongs. The sun and moon are embodied by paper cutouts with faces—the movie often looks as though it were designed by a precocious seven-year-old.

The jokes, however, are not necessarily for children. The Doll is essentially a sex comedy, about an effete young man who tries to marry a mechanical doll, only to discover that she’s flesh and blood, and more fun that way. The protagonist (he is in no sense a hero) is Lancelot, played by Hermann Thimig with a series of ill-fitting frock coats, a Percy Shelley coiffure, and a personality firmly under the thumb of his mother.

When he arrived in Hollywood in 1921 to make a movie for Mary Pickford, Lubitsch was asked to name his favorite of his films; he answered The Doll. As Eyman points out, even toward the end of his life, he cited the movie as one of the best he had made in Germany. The Doll is a young man’s picture, fast-moving, bursting with energy and carefree experimentation, its jokes ranging from sophisticated winks to groaning eye-rollers. The bizarrely suggestive intertitles pile up: “Familiarize yourself with the mechanism,” Hilarius admonishes Lancelot about his doll-wife, along with later instructions to “Always dust her well” and “don’t forget to oil her every two weeks.” Lubitsch was already using a skill he would perfect in Hollywood: risqué, but deniable.