The Doll was one of five feature films German director Ernst Lubitsch shot in 1919, along with two shorts. Even though he had begun his directorial career only five years earlier, a sustained, prolific output meant that by this time Lubitsch was already a seasoned veteran, possessing a technical mastery of the medium and a unique sensibility in regard to romance and comedy. Thus Lubitsch had everything in place to make The Doll one of his finest early films to bear the famed “touch” that made him one of the most respected and beloved filmmakers from the silent era until his death in 1947.
At only a little over an hour long, The Doll is a perfect distillation of the whimsical, magical, and lightly bawdy Lubitsch Touch. The film (written by Lubitsch and frequent collaborator Hanns Kräly from an E.T.A. Hoffmann story) literally takes place in a dollhouse, with Lubitsch himself introducing the audience to a toy domicile that quickly becomes life-size after a strategic dissolve. Lubitsch takes delightful advantage of the artificial setting: two-dimensional backdrops, cardboard moons replete with changing facial expressions, conspicuous stop motion animation, and even horses played by men in costume, à la an elementary school theatrical production. (The Doll was released the year before The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari brought its landmark use of German Expressionist set design. Both were UFA productions that reveled in audacious studio experimentation, part of what film theorist Siegfried Kracauer saw as the German post-WWI retreat from reality).
Inhabiting this fairy tale world is a young prince named Lancelot (Hermann Thimig), forced into marriage by his uncle, the Baron von Chanterelle (Max Kronert). Foreshadowing Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances, Lancelot flees in manic slapstick from a mob of women longing to marry him due to his exalted title. He hides out in a monastery—in a hilarious gag that only Lubitsch could have thought up, the monks party like kings in private yet portray to the outside world the façade of strict, ascetic devotion.
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Upon learning that the Baron will reward him monetarily upon marrying, the greedy monks persuade the wedding-adverse Lancelot to make a life-like doll his bride and give them the loot. Lancelot visits expert doll-maker Hilarius (Victor Janson), but instead of purchasing the craftsman’s newest masterpiece modeled on his beautiful daughter Ossi (Ossi Oswalda), he accidentally takes home Ossi herself.
Much of the humor in The Doll derives from sight gags based on one person not realizing an inanimate object is really a living being (think Weekend at Bernie’s, reversed). When, for instance, Lancelot nervously prepares to change Ossi’s clothes, Ossi slaps him away. “That must be a truly complicated mechanism!” Lancelot exclaims, amazed that technology has progressed to the point where a robot can perform such a feat. Later, at the reception before their wedding, Lancelot declines food for his bride; a famished Ossi stuffs as much food in her mouth as possible when Lancelot isn’t aware, and then—in a classic bit—ceases chewing at the exact moments a suspicious Lancelot looks back at her.
Chock full of such perfectly timed moments, The Doll nonetheless connects to some of the larger themes of Lubitsch’s career. His casually naughty view of sexual foibles is very much on display, as is his overturning of conventional gender roles: Ossi continually refuses—often violently—to be reduced to a mere plaything of male desire, though Lancelot discovers her true femininity via the most stereotypical of deductions (she screams at the sight of a mouse). It should also be pointed out that Lubitsch at times mocks the underlying sexism of his film’s premise—Hilarius advertises his wares as fit “for bachelors, widowers and misogynists”—even as the sexual fetishism of The Doll also evokes the kind of masturbatory phallocentrism so eerily depicted in the human-automaton intercourse at the end of Federico Fellini’s pitch black Casanova.
Most fascinatingly, The Doll points to the complex and celebratory artifice and theatricality that would be so visually and thematically important to one of Lubitsch’s late masterpieces, To Be or Not To Be. In that film, as in The Doll, there are not only fakes but also fake fakes, with duplicitous performances that hinge on the imitation of an imitator. But where To Be or Not To Be unfolds in the midst of the bleakest of real life situations—the Nazi occupation of Poland—The Doll indulges in fantasy. Instead of the creative artifice employed by resistance fighters to combat the Nazis’ repressive artifice in To Be or Not To Be, the theatricality in The Doll belongs to the realm of pure, childlike play, where nothing is real but everything is fun.
Michael Joshua Rowin writes about cinema for The L Magazine, Cineaste, Artforum, LA Weekly, and Reverse Shot.
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