Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 02 June 2007
Source Kino Video DVD
It always seems surprising today that in his own day Ernst Lubitsch’s reputation as a silent filmmaker was based as much on his big historical epics – works like Madame Dubarry and Anna Boleyn – as on comedies of the likes of The Oyster Princess. Certainly modern taste favours the effervescence and frivolities of Lubitsch’s comic touch rather than the heavier hand at work in these epics. There are nice touches, and Anna Boleyn is relatively successful, but it is hard to escape a certain turgidity inherent in the genre.
The historical story is a well-known one. Anne Boleyn – whom Lubitch’s film calls for whatever reason“Anna” – was a former lady-in-waiting who King Henry VIII married in 1533 after ensuring his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon was annulled; the English Church’s break with Rome occurred as part of this process. But Anne never produced a male heir and by 1536 the king had grown tired of her, and she was charged with adultery and treason, imprisoned in the Tower of London, and then beheaded.
The Anna of Lubitsch’s film is an innocent, a naïve and guileless young woman who never seeks the King’s attentions but who also never has the strength to completely reject them either. From early on, she is a victim whose motivations and intentions are misunderstood by those around her. At their “meeting cute” – she attracts Henry’s attention when her dress is comically caught in a door – she is as flirtatious as he is, but she’s quickly resistant to his advances, advances which are very close to physical/sexual assaults, one in the bushes, the other in her own bedroom.
Yet in spite of her essential innocence she’s immediately ostracised by the courtiers in attendance, as she is, on the Queen—as Lubitsch shows us in one scene in the Queen’s chamber with Anna alone on the left, the Queen and her courtiers huddled together on the right, and a wide, empty, alienating space between them. Her lover Norris similarly misinterprets her behaviour, and Lubitsch underlines this with two parallel scenes of observation through a window. In both cases a figure stands outside a window, looking in and interpreting the scene unfolding before him.
In the first case, Lubitsch repeats the interior shot of Norris and Anna embracing with one that now frames them within the open window frame; Anna’s uncle the Duke of Norfolk stands in the extreme foreground, looking in and in the process discovering the relationship developing between the two. In the second, it is Norris himself who is the outside observer when he catches sight of King Henry climbing out of Anna’s window. But this time the observer misinterprets the scene before him. She has just rejected the King’s advances but Norris mistakes what he sees as a sign that exactly the opposite has occurred. This pattern of misinterpretation will continue through the film, in minor note (Smeaton spots Norris kissing Queen Anna’s hand in the woods and reads this as giving him licence to try the same) and major (the enmity of the court; the false accusations at Anna’s trial).
Anna’s innocence is underlined through the contrast with the very different character of Jane Seymour. Jane is in a sense a mirror image in negative of Anna, where the false motivations ascribed to Anna hold to be true in Jane’s case—Jane very deliberately attracts Henry’s attention in order to win his affections away from Anna. In the late confrontation between the two Jane claims that “I serve you as you served Catherine”, but the film once again positions Anna as innocent: here, dressed in a simple nightdress, Anna kneels before the haughty Jane in her fine clothes.
Anna Boleyn does everything to meet the requirements of the historical epic. There are the large and elaborate exterior and interior sets, the lavish furnishings, the rich clothing, and the big outdoor scenes—a court sports event, Anna’s coronation, a Spring Festival, a hunt, a joust, and even a street battle outside the cathedral which must have had a contemporary resonance for the German audience of the day. But the film suffers from Anna’s bland characterisation and a general plodding, predictable tone. It only really comes alive with the character of King Henry.
Henry is played by Emil Jannings, and his portrayal of Henry is characteristic of the power and strength he always brought to his roles. (Jannings even made his “loser” roles – like the doorman in The Last Laugh and the professor in The Blue Angel – invested with the grandiose, although there was always a whiff of the hammy as well.) The King Henry of Anna Boleyn is a sensual man of powerful appetites, greedy, lubricious, and sometimes violent. The scenes of his exuberant carousing around the table with his drunken cronies/courtiers are set up in deliberate contrast to the stately formality of Queen Katherine’s court.
In his excessive sating of his senses, Henry is also a source of comedy. There’s the way in Katherine’s presence he peeks surreptitiously at Anna, which he then tries to cover up with the pretence of a coughing fit. Or, how at the Spring Festival, Henry sneaks away while Anna is not looking in pursuit of one of the scantily-clad maidens. Or even the slapstick note of the scene where Henry stands up and the girl sitting on his lap tumbles to the ground.
Not that the darker side to Henry’s exuberance doesn’t also become apparent. We see it in his violent attacks on the jester and on Smeaton, and in the ruthlessness with which he conducts his campaign to produce a male heir, involving as it does his courtship of Lady Jane, his ignoring of his own new-born daughter (in one scene, literally abandoned to one side), and his orchestration of the downfall of Anna herself.
But for all the moral failings of his character, which the film does take to task, Henry is still the lively centre of a rather ponderous tale, a tale that fortunately is also enlivened by instances of Lubitch’s directorial wit. There’s a lovely touch right at the start which introduces Anna by having her rise up into the frame to match the rocking of the ship she is on. There are some nice occasions where Lubitsch plays with contrasts between foreground and background—as when two porters open a pair of heavy gates onto a busy dockside scene, or when a wall of vegetables is pulled down to reveal the palace kitchen. And there’s some fascinating use of masking that creates geometric shapes (ovals, squares, triangles, even avant la lettre widescreen rectangles) to highlight a character or characters within a scene.
Lubitsch also effects a very satisfying change to the aesthetic/visual tone of the film at the end as Anna’s story winds down to her inevitable death. The wide spaces and elaborate furnishings vanish in favour of the stark empty prison walls; Anna’s rich clothing is replaced by a simple pale gown; and our final image of her is the sombre image of her standing between two dark-hooded executioners, an age away from the lyricism of her early scenes in the film. Now she is led away, literally off the screen and out of the film—to her death.