'bout time for me to get going on this. Funny, Germany was the first country with a cinema that I really made an effort to explore, but I just haven't kept up, and I'm sure not doing well with this challenge. Well, a few is better than none.
Started off with a Lubitsch silent comedy 3fer:
1. Das fidele Gefängnis / The Merry Jail (1917)
2. Meyer aus Berlin (1919)
3. Die Bergkatze / The Wildcat (1921)
The first of these is a solid working out of a common theme to both Lubitsch and comedy generally - the spouse spying on her/his partner, suspicious of the other having an affair and/or being a wastrel, drinking, etc. In this case it's the wife (let's face it, it's usually the wife, we men are scum) trying to catch her husband, who is supposed to go to jail for a day for drunk and disorderly behavior, at a party. She disguises herself, and gets her husband to flirt with her - thinking she's another woman. There are also a couple of other plots going on involving various flirtations and indiscretions, and all the men are pretty much drunks, including jailer Emil Jannings. There's nothing altogether remarkable here but it's typical Lubitsch panache and lots of fun and plot to be had in 48 minutes.
Meyer is rather problematic, at least to this viewer seen through the prism of Jewish stereotypes and comedy over the past century. I'm certainly not forgetting that Lubitsch - also the star of this film, another marriage farce - was Jewish, or that attitudes about stereotypes and humor have both changed considerably since his time, but his character of Meyer comes across as one of the most over-the-top ingratiating Jewish merchant types I've ever seen on film. I don't know if I'd call it "offensive", exactly - Meyer isn''t a bad guy, isn't greedy or thieving or overtly dishonest, but I definitely found the constant mugging and such grating. The plot of the main character lying to his wife about being sick, going off to the mountains for adventure isn't exactly novel or interesting either, though there are occasional fun bits and the ending a little risque for the time. Meh, not terrible but definitely the worst of the 20-odd films from the director I've seen. Also, where is Ossi Oswalda who is supposedly in this?
Thankfully Die Bergkatze shows the director at or near his early peak, helped immeasurably by Pola Negri in the title role. I think this is the first Negri film I've seen - she plays "Rischka" (RBG, I know where you original username comes from now), daughter of the leader of a group of bandits that harass a military outpost in the mountains, who falls in love with the new Lieutenant who comes to the fort. This is a chaotic, crazy farce made all the more fun by it's use of wild costumes and even wilder sets and camerawork - the first third of the film or so is almost entirely shot with sequences masked into shapes ranging from circles to thin rectangles to snake-like squiggles. The sets aren't precisely "expressionist" but they seem to come from that space, mixed with something more akin to what we see later in films like the Dr. Seuss-written 5000 Fingers of Dr. T - semi-surrealistic children's fantasies, I guess you could call them. But it is the wild and crazy Rischka who makes the strongest impression - strong indeed even decades later, given than Helena Bonham Carter seems to have borrowed her whole early look from Negri's ragged gypsy wildcat wardrobe and hair. I'm fairly sure I'd put Die Puppe as Lubitsch's greatest German film but this is certainly not far off that very high mark. Just wonderful.
4. Sumurun (1920)
Well, actually it does have plenty of humor - it's a forerunner in some ways of some of the less-serious Hollywood Arabian Nights and other forms of exotica of the 30s-50s. This is a love quadrangle - pentagle? I'm not sure, it got to be a bit much, of a slave girl dancer in love with a merchant, the sheikh who buys the slave girl for himself abandoning his former favorite (the title character) for the new blood, a hunchback also in love with the dancer, and plenty of other complications. It's all a bit messy and doesn't add up to a coherent whole but it looks great - typically lavish Lubitsch style for the time, not really "middle eastern" but exotic at any rate, and we've got Pola Negri again as the dancer, the director as the hunchback, and Jenny Hasselqvist makes a rather mysterious, brooding Sumurun. Not one of Lubitsch's best I think but interesting, and there are a few good action/chase sequences to boot along with all the romance.
5. Von morgens bis mitternachts / From Morn to Midnight (Karl Heinz Martin, 1920)
Wildly inventive over-the-top expressionist crime-melodrama about a bank cashier who despairs of his dull life, and when captured by the spell of a beautiful woman dripping with jewels, decides to change his course by stealing a bunch of money and moving away, where of course destiny does not meet him on the terms he had hoped for. There was really too much here for me to get in one viewing - not that the plot is so complex, but the craziness of the sets and photography, equaled only by Caligari perhaps, make actually watching and digesting all that's going on a challenge - one thing I didn't really comprehend until near the end for example was that the same actress (Roma Bahn) was playing several roles, because the baroque nature of the visuals in some way kept me from paying as close attention to human details as I should have. And maybe I was too tired; though this is certainly a dream-like film in many respects, I'm fairly sure if would profit most by being seen when quite awake.
6. Der Schatz im Silbersee / The Treasure of the Silver Lake (Harald Reinl, 1962)
I think this is my first German western - apart from some Eurowestern coproductions anyway - and it was a good one to start out with. Really beautifully filmed with a lot of great shot compositions entirely on location in Croatia, this is a mountain-set western that does feel rather different from American westerns in that it's all quite green, no hint of desert or for that matter snow - all quite verdant; but in terms of narrative, acting and music it's much more like the traditional American style than most of the Italian westerns of the 60s would be: the heroes are really virtuous men, the bad guys are bad but have some intelligence or honor, the violence is less explicit, the sex nonexistent. It feels in many ways too like a lot of TV westerns of the time - our de facto protagonists, Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, are just passing through an area and come on people who need their help, and proceed to lead a small group of men (and one woman, of course) in taking revenge on the large number of bandits who murdered a stagecoach full of people - and both good guys and bad guys are trying to put together a map to lead them to the legendary treasure of the title. Nothing extraordinary here in the acting/character area, though I quite liked Herbert Lom as the main bad guy (and I think he may have dubbed his own voice in the German language version I saw), and Lex Barker is certainly impressive in the buckskin-clad Shatterhand role - seems very much a Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott type. But Reinl's feel for landscape and the overall narrative drive are quite solid and I certainly look forward to the rest of the Winnetou/Shatterhand films.
7. Harakiri (Fritz Lang, 1919)
Apart from alternate-language versions of the second Mabuse film and M, and the re-edited one film version of the Indian diptych, this was the last Lang film I had left to see. Lang was the first old dead director I really got interested in, way back in the 80s, so it's been a long journey; I could have watched this a while ago but as it happened I just never got around to it, and now with this challenge and having the Kino silent box set on BD, why not? Well, I knew I wasn't going to be in for an exciting finish to Project Fritz Lang, so I can't say I was toooo disappointed, but this German rendition of the Madame Butterfly story is pretty dull stuff all in all. Nothing really stands out - there's a priest character, and the Cho-Cho-San character (her called O-Take-San) is supposed to become a Buddhist priestess before she ends up as a geisha, and the priest's nastiness is really responsible for the way the story turns out as much as the European husband's thoughtlessness; I don't think that's in the opera though perhaps it's in some other version of the story - but it doesn't really make things more interesting. It just doesn't seem to have a lot of life and the acting feels quite muted, though the set design is rather nice if not really particularly accurate to Japanese culture. A curio for Lang completists or those interested in the source material, that's about it.