The Arabian Nights spectacle of Sumurun attests to silent German cinema’s fascination with ornate orientalism, a fascination evident in fellow UFA neophyte Fritz Lang’s early works and of apparent special interest to Ernst Lubitsch during his formative years; in addition to this harem melodrama, there were also two curious flings with Egyptiania, Eyes of the Mummy and The Loves of Pharaoh. An adaptation of a play by Friedrich Freska (originally produced by Lubitsch mentor Max Reinhardt), Sumurun unexpectedly anticipates many of the components of the director’s ill-defined but unmistakable “touch,” in particular the romantic triangulation later moved into the deco drawing rooms of Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living. Indeed, Lubitsch’s narrative features triangles of love and betrayal that eventually overlap, with the eponymous rebellious harem girl (Jenny Hasselqvist) gravitating from the stern Sheik (played by The Golem himself, Paul Wegener) to a young cloth merchant (Harry Liedtke), while a fiery dancer (Pola Negri) ignores the affections of a hunchback jester (Lubitsch himself) in favor of the Prince (Au Egede Nissen). In contrast to the serious, weighty epics that caught the eye of Hollywood producers, the film jumps recklessly (and, often, exhilaratingly) from coarse comedy to cutting drama; the tragic arc of the plot is open enough to include Keystone routines with the royal eunuchs, a particularly scabrous bit of dark comedy involving Lubitsch as an uncooperative would-be corpse, and an ineffable instant of pantomimed eroticism when Sumurun’s forbidden lover kisses her exposed foot before raising her lips to his. In the end too messy to sustain its moods, the movie is at its most intriguing when letting unhinged performances disrupt the carefully arranged frames, most notably with the director himself hogging the spotlight with a grotesque gusto that foresees not just Emil Jannings’s tragic cuckolded-clown figure in The Blue Angel, but also filmmakers’ penchant for plunking themselves in front of their own cameras (a long line from Hitchcock to Welles to, shudder, M. Night Shyamalan).
- First National Pictures
- 103 min
- Ernst Lubitsch
- Ernst Lubitsch, Hans Kräly
- Pola Negri, Jenny Hasselqvist, Paul Wegener, Ernst Lubitsch, Aud Egede Nissen, Harry Liedtke, Carl Clewing, Margarete Kupfer, Jakob Tiedke, Paul Biensfeldt
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