In his monumentally waspish autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, Josef Von Sternberg wrote that when fellow émigré Ernst Lubitsch “was serious, not trying to indulge in little drolleries, he could make something unbelievably bad.” While reductive and ungenerous, Sternberg’s comment nonetheless relates to how humanizing humor provided a much more expressive vessel for Lubitsch’s worldview than ponderous drama, a view all too evident in Anna Boleyn. Along with Madame DuBarry, the film was one of several historical pageantries made by Lubitsch during his early tenure with UFA studios, costume epics which, hailed by contemporary critics and instrumental in bringing the auteur to Hollywood, are heavy slogs next to the unpretentious freshness of The Doll and The Oyster Princess around the same time.
The Renaissance England in which Anna Boleyn (Henny Porten) finds herself suddenly recruited as the second wife of Henry VIII (Emil Jannings) gives Lubitsch plenty of pomp and spectacle, which he handles with exacting skill, but the film is more fascinating on a thematic level. Since the beginning of his career, Lubitsch used his characters’ manners as an intricate tool of analysis—of how human behavior is shaped by society and how surfaces (including film style itself) can embody emotional and spiritual meaning—and the film’s English court is a veritable nest of stifling ceremonies: The rivalry between two maidens reflexively turns into mechanic pleasantries after they bump into each other amid the revelries, and even violence must be channeled into ritual, as when accusations of infidelity are resolved in a jousting match.
In this context, Janning’s lusty, gluttonous Henry emerges as the picture’s most interesting character, a vital bull in a genteel china shop who, giving in to his reckless impulses while reinforcing the oppression of all those around him, is both at odds and at the center of the system. Opulently inert, Anna Boleyn nevertheless showcases a rigorous Germanic geometry in that Anna, helplessly wedged between Catherine (Hedwig Pauly-Winterstein) and Jane Seymour (Aud Egede Nissen), is but the middle segment in the king’s search for a male heir. The frame becomes increasingly entrapping as tragedy draws nearer, and the closed doors that later illustrated Lubitsch’s soigné naughtiness acquire here a more sinister meaning as torture chambers lurk on the other side.