by HELEN GEIB
[This post is the first in a series of reviews of the silents I saw in the theater in Los Angeles at the Cinefamily Silent Movie Theater between November, 2007 and October, 2008.]
As if to welcome me to my new home, the Silent Movie Theater reopened the same week I moved to LA. Although the theater’s name is now only a carryover from the time when it was a dedicated silent movie venue, the programming through 2007 features a weekly entry in a series of films by master directors. In an auspicious beginning, the first film chosen was The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1928).
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer, The Student Prince is one of the masterworks of the late silent era. It’s such a wonderful movie that it’s difficult to do anything but rhapsodize over its beauty and accomplishment. It is a perfect film.
The story is simple. The prince of a small kingdom has an unhappy childhood, hedged in by rules and retainers. He is sent for a short time to study at a military college where, away from the burdens of responsibility and constant surveillance, he lives like an ordinary student, making friends, falling in love, and enjoying life fully for the first time. In the end, he is called back to assume the burden of kingship. In outline, this is the stuff of a rather ordinary romance of old Europe. Yet in its details, under Lubitsch’s direction and in the performances by Novarro and Shearer, the film is almost unbearably poignant.
The Student Prince was a particularly good choice for a master directors series because so much of the credit for its success goes to Lubitsch. Lubitsch’s directing style is so distinctive that his admirers coined a term to describe it: “the Lubitsch touch.” It is extraordinarily sensitive to a scene’s emotional register, capable of drawing out a complex range of feelings. It is characterized by suggestion and indirection – in the famous example, holding a shot of a closed door is more eloquent than showing what is taking place behind the door – that heightens the comedy or pathos of the scene. Each shot lasts for just the right length of time, building to a finished film that is exactly as long as it should be.