Chris Paret: Civilized Crooks or Honest Barbarians?

Ernst Lubitsch’s Idea of Europe and the Art of not showing things directly


In comedies that are praised as “light” and “elegant,” Ernst Lubitsch consistently elaborated on a quite unfunny ethical choice: the alternative between being a civilized crook or a honest barbarian. The “good Europeans” in his movies are (in contrast to overly pragmatic American Businessman, humorless Bolshevik Russians, and cynically fascist Germans) in general impostors, thieves, crooks. Lubitsch thereby implies that in order to not be barbarous, one must in one way or another be disingenuous, one must favor appearance over truth.

In this paper, I consider whether this position represents a case of cynicism in the sense of “enlightened false consciousness,”, as Peter Sloterdijk has articulated as being a quality especially associated with the Weimar Republic. The ethical choice his films present is closely linked to the particular genre in which Lubitsch excelled, i.e. comedy and its “passion for appearances as opposed to the passion for the real.” (Mladen Dolar) This choice between civilizing swindle or barbarizing immediacy is also reflected in the director’s style, the famous “Lubitsch touch,” which ultimately can be interpreted as following the instruction “Do not touch!” since Lubitsch did not believe that the power of the film resides in the explicit and immediate character of what it gives us to see. Instead, he posited that film’s power resides in the Art (and fun) of not showing things directly.