Laughter filled the Wildcat Theater earlier on Tuesday night as a black-and-white silent comedy filled the movie screen.
As the lights dimmed, a German silent film called “The Mountain Cat” took the audience to the early 20th century as part of “The Lubitsch Touch” film series.
“The closer we can get you to where those people were sitting in the theaters when it was first screened, the better the chance you can appreciate the history behind the film,” said professor of history and film series program director Greg Lewis, who added that one of the goals of the series is to bring cultural history to campus.
According to him, the “The Lubitsch Touch” film series pays homage to famous German movie director Ernst Lubitsch, one of Hollywood’s most iconic filmmakers.
The series focuses on his Oscar-winning films during the Weimar period, a phase of German history from 1919 to 1933, according to WSU art history professor Angelika Pagel, who took the reins in hosting this semester’s film series project.
This week’s film was called “The Mountain Cat,” which featured the Polish actress Pola Negri as the moody daughter of a brigand chief who is fighting with local bandits.
With over-animated acting, elaborate sets and slap-stick comedy mixed with absurd plots, this German silent film is still considered a historical classic despite its early commercial failure.
Pagel said she liked the film especially for its “avant-garde style” and really enjoys Lubitsch’s experimentation with new cinematic methods.
“I love it when things are unconventional. I love it when film artists dare to try something new and dare to do something unusual,” she said, “and just using the medium to its fullest is what I really appreciate about his films.”
Divided into four acts, the film introduced creative cinematic frames, new outdoor filming and permanent sets that would soon become Lubitsch’s only venture into German “Expressionistic” film during his career.
Pagel said she chose Lubitsch’s films as part of this semester’s film series because she was interested in early 20th century art and culture, especially during the Weimar period.
“I think films have been such a constant companion for people throughout the world. I think watching older movies teach us something about history,” Pagel said. “I thought Lubitsch films would be a great opportunity.”
According to Lubitsch’s biography, the filmmaker was born a Russian-Jew who went from being a modest actor to a prominent Hollywood director during the early 1900s.
He is renowned for his unique cinematic style of mixing sophistication with humorous innuendo in his comedies and is remembered for his influential contribution to the film industry.
“(Lubitsch) has had such great success because he has this gift for directing and a real narrative for storytelling that’s just clean,” said Lewis. “Within the film industry, he will remain a pretty big name.”
According to WSU freshman Richard Madsen, Lubitsch comedy films are meant to be entertaining. However, his work kicked off the time period where people started seeing films as an art instead of a gimmick.
“Lubitsch’s films give us a very interesting way to watch film. It’s interesting to see his work because it’s the beginning of film as we know it and you’ll never look at film the same way again,” said Madsen, who is in charge of introducing some of the films this semester.
This is the first time Lewis is showing Hollywood films as part of the WSU film series.
However, Lewis’s main goal for the WSU film series program is to show the audience that films are not only for entertainment, but help to reflect on historical time periods.
“We can extract a film and get the history embedded within it during that specific period when it was made or the period they are trying to represent,” he said. “I want to get you exposed to history without a filter, and I believe films can do that.”
Only two films into the series, “The Lubitsch Touch” will continue next week with one of Lubitsch’s masterpieces “Trouble in Paradise,” on March 3.
“The Lubitsch Touch” screens films for free every Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Wildcat Theater until April 21, and everyone is welcome to come.