Sumurun (1920)

This presents Lubitsch in his other mode, that of costume picture maker. More specifically, it’s a film of a theatrical production by Max Reinhardt (who’d filmed it himself in 1910) that Lubitsch had acted in, adapted from a story in the Arabian Nights. Having never read the original, I have no idea what it’s like, but the film gives the feeling of two stories intertwined forcibly and not always happily. The tale is sufficiently convoluted that it took me quite a while to untangle it. Basically, you have Sumurun, the favoured slave girl of the Old Sheikh. She’s in love with Nur al Din, the cloth merchant, who reciprocates said love, but she’s got to fend off the Old Sheikh and his son. In the meantime, both the Old and the Young Sheikh are in love with a dancing girl (Pola Negri) from a troupe of travelling minstrels, who is beloved of a hunchback musician (Lubitsch himself, in his last acting role) but who does not reciprocate said love. Having only seen Lubitsch in comic mode before, it was a bit jarring to see him doing straightish melodrama in which the comic elements are, at least initially, kind of incidental; they come to the fore a bit more in the film’s second half, but it’s still a pretty rum romantic comedy that ends with three of its main characters murdered… This Pola Negri fansite indicates the German version is vastly superior to the American release (which was the only one available for decades), and I’ve no doubt that is so, but it’s still pretty problematic, and the uncertainty of tone is an issue that the film never really overcomes (and the DVD liner notes more or less admit as much). I’d be lying if I said I particularly liked this, though it does seem like the sort of film I might like better on a second viewing when I know what to expect…

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