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SILENT FILMS

THE OYSTER PRINCESS

Ernst Lubitsch, 1919 Music by Peter Vermeersch & Flat Earth Society
price 15 €

In 2005 Peter Vermeersch composed his score for the film classic Die Austernprinzessin (The Oyster Princess, 1919) by Ernst Lubitsch. The live performances assisted by the musicians of the Flat Earth Society were extremely successful, resulting in a large number of live music screenings and in this DVD edition. Twelfth Grand Prix of Brasschaet 1932 (Jules Van Volxem) is a short documentary film about a well-known cycling race for which Peter Vermeersch wrote a score in 1998.

Oyster king Quaker has everything in life that can be bought. He is a perfectly satisfied parvenu. This is not the case for his daughter Ossi who urgently wants a husband - a prince at the very least. Matchmaker Seligson brings her into contact with pennyless prince Nucki, a notorious boozer and party animal. Nucki orders his personal lackee Jozef to investigate the marriage proposal. By doing so he turns the enterprise into chaos. Sparkling Lubitsch satire on American bourgeois life at the beginning of the previous century, set to music by Peter Vermeersch and the Flat Earth Society.

Director Ernst Lubitsch | Scenario: Hanns Kräly & Ernst Lubitsch | Sets: Rochus Gliese & Kurt Richter | Photography: Theodor Sparkuhl | Technical director: Kurt Waschneck

Cast Victor Janson | Ossi Oswalda | Harry Liedtke | Julius Falkenstein | Max Kronert | Kurt Bois

Ernst Lubitsch and The Oyster Princess

It is mainly the films from the last ten years of Ernst Lubitsch’s career that have established his reputation with film enthusiasts. There is Ninotchka, in which Greta Garbo is revealed to be an excellent comedienne, Heaven Can Wait, in which satire is tempered by nostalgia. Or The Shop Around the Corner, a favourite both in Europe and the United States, even more since its re-release two decades ago, and To Be or Not To Be, which is now his most famous film but which, at the time, was controversial and made a loss.

It was an invitation from Mary Pickford that took the Berlin director to the USA in 1922. The reason for this was the international success of the lavish historical drama Madame Dubarry, a success that once remodelled American style failed to be repeated. His collaboration with Pickford was a flop and his later ‘serious’ films also failed to be a success.

Then Warner, at the time still a relatively small studio, offered Lubitsch a four-year contract. This was the real beginning of his American career with five animated comedies of manners, known as The Marriage circle, a successful beginning both commercially and critically. The introduction of talkies proved to be no obstacle and Ernst Lubitsch developed a very solid career abroad that ended with his biggest successes.

Lubitsch had started in 1911 as an actor with one of Max Reinhardt’s Berlin theatre companies, which undoubtedly stimulated his acute awareness of scenery, light, movement and imagination, all of which he would later use to escape the heavy naturalism that dominated the German scene. Meanwhile, the up to then rather formless German cinema began to take shape with adaptations such as Der Andere and Der Student von Prag. Cinemas now no longer had to rely on imported films. In the same period – 1913 – Lubitsch the actor makes the successful transition to comic film. A short time later he directs a series of short films. In his first ‘three-reeler’, Schuhpalast Pinkus, that in more than one scene proves to be an early version of The Shop Around the Corner, he adds a dose of sexual innuendo to the generally cynical, burlesque tone, which soon becomes his hallmark. While Lubitsch the actor’s silly faces tend to remind us of the past, the direction here already suggests that he is becoming one of the best German directors of this period.

Die Austernprinzessin
from 1919, is – also according to Lubitsch’s own later assessment – one of his best three German comedies. The story of an American oyster king who wants to marry off his daughter is very clearly a satire of the nouveau riche. The storyline is flimsy enough to draw attention to operetta sets and ditto costumes, to risqué caricatures and sophisticated staging. Neither the brand new husband nor the father need be ashamed of looking through keyholes because, in this world, authority is only a pretext for ignoring moral principles and satisfying one’s own desires. This burlesque world is portrayed as a feast of rhythm and orchestration, with one brilliant scene after another. A party of drunken revellers staggers towards us, systematically ending up, one merry-maker after the other, on park benches positioned to the left and right. While the oyster princess is washed, powdered and massaged by dozens of servants, we dance to the rhythm of the rosette on the floor. And what is a wedding other than an opportunity to have three hundred waiters from the best Berlin restaurants carry out a perfectly timed choreography for waiters?

Die Austernprinzessin must be both a blessing and a curse for whoever has to compose the accompanying music: everything already is music.

Peter Rotsaert

Feature film 64'
Documentary Twelfth Grand Prix of Brasschaet 1932 (Jules Van Volxem, 12') with music by Peter Vermeersch

Language German
Subtitles English, Dutch, French
Format 3:4
Frame 1:37
Régional code PAL (region free)

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The Oyster Princess15 €
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