Where are the Nazis in CLUNY BROWN?

Where are the Nazis in CLUNY BROWN?

I know this isn’t a question that’s probably been burning inside much of anyone else besides me, but I recently suffered me way through the awkward and disappointing biography of Ernst Lubitsch by Scott Eyman, a book I’d only bought because I wanted to see how a scholar steeped in Lubitsch would address this very question.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s a question that cuts to the very heart of what Lubitsch was all about.  And Eyman missed the point entirely.

I could build a time machine and travel back to 1993 to write an angry letter to Eyman, but that seems a misuse of resources.  Once I finish work on my time machine the first thing I want to do is go back to the 1920s and collect some prints of films like HEART TROUBLE and HATS OFF, so I’m not wasting any of my time machine’s battery power just to berate some poor biographer, even if he did fluff the shot something awful.  So, instead I’ll just unload my rant here—and maybe we can have some fun digesting what made Lubitsch the genius that he was.

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Conrad Veidt: “I am a wanderer”

“What are you?,” asks the blunt landlady when a new guest arrives unexpectedly on the doorstep of her boarding house in The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935). Filmgoers and filmmakers had been attempting to answer that question since they first spied this tall enigma in front of a camera, starting from the moment when Cesare the somnambulist opened his extraordinary eyes in the expressionist horror classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919).  “I am a wanderer,” Conrad Veidt’s nameless character replies quietly, reminding the viewer of his role as The Wandering Jew in an earlier Gaumont-British film, which marked what was roughly Veidt‘s one hundredth appearance on screen. “I live so out of the world,” he explains, further unsettling the chattering woman.

In truth, the cosmopolitan, German-born actor, whose birthday falls on Saturday, January 22nd, was very much “of the world,” involved in the tumult of his era, but able to hone his gifts to such a point of transcendence, he achieved an international stardom. He could illuminate humanity’s sinister side, but made viewers recognize the human being inside the often troubling characters he brought to life with such exquisite understanding. Ultimately, as Veidt’s friend and contemporary, producer Eric Pommer, once commented, “It is hard to say what was more to be admired in him, his artistry or his humanity.”

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