1 May 2010 | Cineanalyst
"The Doll" is a delightful feature--the best I've seen of director Ernst Lubitsch's German films. The deliberately artificial and often theatrical settings--flat backdrops, fake trees and people in horse costumes included--by Kurt Richter saliently add to the picture's enchantment and fairytale-like narrative. "The Doll" is similar in this approach to Maurice Tourneur's 1918 films "The Blue Bird" and "Prunella." Like "The Blue Bird," "The Doll" has a few moments that seem reminiscent of the feéries of early-cinema pioneer Georges Méliès, such as the Moon's facial expressions and the stop-motion animation to change the doll maker's hair. Highly-artificial theatricality was also adopted for "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920), although in a very different way. Lubitsch begins the film well by appearing in front of the camera to introduce and arrange the mise-en-scène in miniature--a scene that then fades to the actual set and beginning of the story proper.
In it, the baron's nephew doesn't want to marry a woman, so he purchases what he believes is a life-size doll to be his wife. Meanwhile, a real woman, the doll maker's daughter, is pretending to be that doll to hide that the doll maker's apprentice broke the doll that was based on her appearance. So, the nephew thinks he's fooling everyone, when he's the one being fooled. It's a simple narrative, briskly plotted, and very well enacted. The inherent sexism isn't lost on Lubitsch either, as a humorous advertisement offers the doll maker's product to widowers and misogynists alike. Additionally, there are a few light sex jokes throughout. Ossi Oswalda is wonderful, cute and funny, with her various expressions and movements, including the dancing, as she plays the character masquerading as a lifeless doll. Her performance significantly helps make this photoplay entertaining. The slapstick and subplot antics between the wacky-looking doll maker and his young apprentice are even amusing and appreciated.
Dancing and a comedy chase make their way into this and other Lubitsch films. The themes of mistaken identity or masquerading as acting and doubles also underlie the humor of several Lubitsch comedies, in Germany and America. His three earliest comedies that I've seen ("The Merry Jail," "I Don't Want to Be a Man" and "The Oyster Princess") all play with these ideas in different and self-reflexive ways, with characters pretending to be someone else. The girl isn't only doubled as a doll; her image is literally doubled photographically during a dream scene. Moreover, the theme of fakery extends further in "The Doll": the dolls are fake, a real woman fakes being one of them, which is supported by the fake appearance of much of the film's production design. The entire production coalesces to firmly establish the film's world as fantasy. The sets and designs of Lubitsch's German films seem to have always been impressive, but in some of them, it feels that they overwhelm their plays, or that the narratives and characters were never equal to the grand décors, but in "The Doll," it all fits together.