Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 14 August 2007
Source Kino Video DVD
The Wildcat falls on the comic side of Lubitsch’s silent cinema, which is a good thing as his other side, that of the big historical epics like Anna Boleyn and Madame DuBarry, can seem rather turgid and ponderous to modern eyes. Sumurun, which like The Wildcat stars the notorious vamp beauty Pola Negri, straddles the two sides, always better when it veers towards the comic, so it’s promising that The Wildcat advertises itself as a ‘grotesque in four acts.’ Here, it’s in the line of The Oyster Princess, one of the best of Lubitsch’s early successes, and where that film took a satiric aim at American capitalism and the German upper classes, The Wildcat has the German military firmly in its sights.
The setting is a military fort in the wilds of some fantasy never-never land, close to the snow-covered mountain hideout of the rough robber baron Claudius and his rumbustious and tempestuous daughter Rischka (this is the Pola Negri role). Right from the start, heightened artifice is to the fore, above all with the toy town set of the fort itself, all perfectly, symmetrically balanced. This symmetry is repeated in shot after shot in the opening sequence introducing the fort and is reinforced by Lubitsch’s frankly bizarre use of masking. In earlier films like Anna Boleyn or Sumurun Lubitsch had recourse to the occasional masking effect – a horizontal or vertical rectangle, for example – which enabled him to highlight elements in a frame that would otherwise be diffused or would lose impact in a standard full-frame shot. But in The Wildcat every kind of shape and outline is used, to frankly excessive effect. It’s an excess in keeping with the overall comic tone and acting style of the film.
Parody of the military is the order of the day here. The fort commandant is a figure of self-satisfied inconsequence, done up in his over-elaborate uniform, forever twirling his large moustaches, blind to the compete lack of respect from his men, who leap back into bed as soon as he’s conducted his barracks inspection, and from his harridan of a wife’he’s completely under her thumb and he even has to crawl around on his hands ands knees in order to retrieve an official communication (which she’s already read, before him) from under her foot.
The commandant is as far from the brave upright figure of military lore as is possible to be. When the coachman arrives to report the kidnapping of Lieutenant Alexis by the robbers, he’s having his breakfast. No sooner are the words ‘The robbers’ out of the coachman’s mouth than he’s hiding under the table, but once he’s heard the rest (‘have ambushed the lieutenant’) he returns to relief to tackling his food. Which no doubt explains why he responds to his troops’ ‘victory’ with a food metaphor: ‘You fell on them like a starving man upon a steak.’
The one moment of military action that we are witness to – Alexis’ expedition against the robbers – is a total farce. The troops are completely inept, running off as soon as the robbers start shooting. The robbers themselves can find time for a cup of coffee in the middle of hostilities (the whole idea of military authority is undermined by having the robber leader bring the coffee to Rischka, rather than the other way round as might be expected), and a soldier intent on aiming his rifle can be disconcerted (‘Don’t get rough, now’) by a well-judged snowball thrown by Rischka. Needless to say, in a further undermining of military ethos, Alexis, who Rischka literally throws off the top of a mountain, will claim this utter rout as a victory.
Our very first introduction to Lieutenant Alexis is a mock heroic gem. Lubitsch uses all his experience in his historic epics of moving crowds around to parody the farewell of a military hero. Alexis’ prowess, it is clear, has been displayed in the bedroom rather than on the battlefield (a woman envoy formally farewells him with a ‘You have served us well’), hordes of women rush back and forth around his departing car, a crowd of flag-waving young girls serenades him with ‘Goodbye, Daddy,’ and the authorities are only able to disperse the women with the release of some white mice.
The Wildcat was the last film Pola Negri made with Lubitsch in Germany (in Hollywood they collaborated only one more time, in Forbidden Paradise, made three years later) and her performance as Rischka is quite different from her other historic/epic roles under his direction. It’s more like that of Ossi Oswalda, the out-of-control comic star of The Oyster Princess and I Don’t Want To Be A Man. Rischka’s wild, raucous, exuberant, and even at times rather violent. In her very first scene she’s a powerful, whip-wielding figure who saves her father from a minor mutiny and happily gives a beating to one of his underlings. Then, she’s bathing in the snow, firing a pistol to order a towel, and dealing with a couple of suitors in her own way’with one suitor in each hand she pulls them back and forth to her in an almost-kiss before letting them drop to her sides in the snow.
This is a powerful, compelling performance. Rischka is the character in control of situations here, and it’s a control that’s exercised physically. She decides the fate of Alexis’she saves him from death after his captivity by the robbers (she’s presumably inspired by the sight of his luxurious undergarments which later also attract the attention of the commandant’s wife), she pushes him off the mountain during the parodic military attack, she’s the one who makes the first move to kiss him, and she’s the one who resolves, through violent, physical action, the complications of the romantic triangle she’s caught up in.
Her physicality is a comic one, full of the pratfalls of silent comedy. But there’s also a real anarchic force to her, one that upturns, even if it never in the end undermines, the conventions of social life. Here, the other robbers are at one with her. You see this not only in the parody of a wedding that the robbers put on for Rischka and the groom that she has literally beaten into loving her, where the couple are handcuffed together and a bucket of snow is dumped on their heads. But you also see Rischka and the robbers all acting in unison when they’re mistaken as guests at the wedding of Alexis and the commandant’s daughter Lilli. Where Rischka (after running amok, swigging from a bottle, breaking a mirror with it, knocking over boxes) exuberantly pours perfume over herself, other robbers similarly tackle the food and drink on offer, one pouring wine into his pants pocket, another food into his hat. The whole formality of this wedding party is extravagantly overturned, ending as it does with Alexis and Rischka chasing one another down jagged parallel sets of stairs until they are united, spinning around on a pole.
With all this anarchic energy on display, it seems a pity that convention wins out at the end. Still, Rischka’s romantic dream of Alexis does point to how she might prove to be too much of a threat to his world’in the dream he offers her his heart, which she immediately chomps on, like some giant crunchy pretzel. Yet, in terms of Rischka’s character, it seems a disappointing and conventional development to show her discovering a sense of femininity, one which Lubitsch shows she is attracted to, when she tries on some female clothes at the fort. In any case, the class divide is too great for Rischka and Alexis to cross. This denial of the expected happy ending is a surprising dose of realism that Lubitsch brings to these comic proceedings, and if the audience may feel disappointed by this turn of events, it is a satisfying saving grace that when Rischka comforts the weeping Lilli, she still has the presence of mind to steal the necklace from around her neck.