The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg is one of Lubitsch’s most surprising, nostalgic and emotionally engaging films. It represents a “return to Germany” after four years in Hollywood, and can been as something of a watershed between his initial works for Warner Bros., then a significantly less important studio than it would soon become, and his extraordinary ten or so year tenure at Paramount. It initiates a series of three films that lie on the cusp between silent and sound cinema – the other’s being the now-lost The Patriot (1928), and the synchronised sound Eternal Love (1929) – and that are more melancholy and romantic in tone (particularly the first and last) than many of the works that surround them.

Although Old Heidelberg is a supremely artificial and studio-built film, contrasting the voluminous sets of the Karlsburg Palace with the warmer interiors and exteriors of the Heidelberg taverns and beer gardens, Lubitsch actually ventured back to Germany in early 1927 to seek out locations for exterior shots of the film (none of which are employed in its finished form). From all accounts, including his own, Lubitsch’s return confirmed his development and status as an American filmmaker, and the trip ended up being more of a nostalgic holiday than a working expedition.

This is not to say that there aren’t connections between the film Lubitsch ended up making in Hollywood for MGM and his earlier work in Germany: though more reserved and disciplined Old Heidelberg does have something of the grandness and eye for the odd detail that distinguishes the groundbreaking historical pageants and more earthy contemporary subjects of his earlier career. But, in many ways, his approach in Old Heidelberg has more in common with another surprisingly successful silent-era adaptation of an old-fashioned American/European operetta, Erich von Stroheim’s stranger and more baroque, but equally nuanced, The Merry Widow (1925), also made for MGM. Stroheim was actually earmarked to direct Old Heidelberg, and Lubitsch only took up the project after negotiating a lucrative deal between MGM and Paramount that would end his Warner Bros. contract. But when watching this rhythmically assured and exquisitely detailed adaptation, full of characteristic images of objects, doorways, windows, frames within frames, it becomes difficult to imagine it as a work by any other director than Lubitsch. It is also a film that resonates closely with another fine adaptation of a dialogue-driven work of literary sophistication, Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925), Lubitsch’s extraordinarily fluent translation of Oscar Wilde’s text into a complex and beguiling pattern of images. These are qualities that Lubitsch even brings to his sound adaptation of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow, the work in his filmography that draws the strongest parallel with Old Heidelberg. Although Lubitsch’s late silent film is one the peaks of its era, it just fails to reach the heights of the 1934 film, suffering a little from the relative colourlessness of its lead performances by Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer, especially when compared with the brazen cheekiness of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald in the later work. But this difference in tone and mood also speaks to the very different sensibilities of the two films.

Like many other works of late silent cinema, Old Heidelberg has a rhythm and style that communicates an extraordinary musicality, a sense of sound that has little to do with the reality of its imminent introduction. It joins such films as Victor Seastrom’s The Wind (1928), where the wind can constantly be “heard” through the gestalt power and organisation of the images alone, and Lubitsch’s own So This is Paris (1926), as late silent works that suggest both the coming of synchronised sound and its partial redundancy. Old Heidelberg also betrays its status as a late “silent” film by its use of a relatively mobile camera. Up until this point, Lubitsch only moved his camera intermittently, often preferring a more static frame in combination with the powers of montage, to articulate his complex patterns of character, object and situation. His earlier Hollywood films became highly influential models (on directors such as Hitchcock and Wilder) of a classical continuity style based on the principles of what might be called “coherent fragmentation”. Lubitsch combines mobile framing, montage and the meticulously framed images of objects and body parts to create a core contrast between the two “worlds” of the film: the isolated and alienating corridors of power and duty in Karlsburg and the sweeping, swaying and deeply nostalgic landscape of Heidelberg (the level of drinking in these scenes also justifies this sympathetic style). Some critics have suggested that the film relies too heavily upon visual clichés to reinforce this contrast. This is definitely true of such moments as when Crown Prince Karl Heinrich (Novarro) returns to take the reins of power in a Karlsburg drenched by rain, but it is the wonderful array and patterning of these visual symbols that grants the film its true impact.

In a subtler and less comic-book manner than Fritz Lang’s wonderfully “graphic” Spione (1928), Lubitsch uses such objects as hats, photographs and paintings to communicate the essence of characters and their passage through the film. Upon arriving in Heidelberg for the first time, Karl Heinrich’s initiation into the Corps Saxonia is marked by his ability to drink a beer in a single draught as well as his adornment in the sash and cap of his welcoming fraternity. In Lubitsch’s cinema, framing and gesture often mean everything. These objects of clothing and action become symbols of the connection Karl Heinrich forms with the group and, ultimately, his inevitable isolation from them. When his uncle dies and Karl Heinrich is forced to become King, a fate he has always known, accepted, but also railed against, he returns to Heidelberg to hopefully rekindle the flames of his very recently departed and swiftly curtailed youth. But although all is still in place in Heidelberg, everything has changed. The Corps Saxonia now great him in a stiffer, less joyous and more ceremonial fashion. The sash and cap they once wore with such élan now act to heighten the formality and stiltedness of the occasion. Therefore, although the circulation and meaning of objects are central in Lubitsch’s cinema, they are ultimately unstable and infelicitous symbols (as is the fan in Wilde’s play, and the music-box in 1940’s sublime The Shop Around the Corner).

At the heart of Old Heidelberg is Karl Heinrich’s brief idyll in the university town. The first part of the film is marked by a series of compositions that emphasise the vast sterility of the young Crown Prince’s surroundings. This section of the film is rendered in Lubitsch’s trademark economy: for example, the departure of Karl Heinrich’s nanny is never really built to, and allows us to also experience a sense of the immediacy of separation and disengaged decision making that marks the boy’s life. It is only in the section set in Heidelberg that this character can break free from the strangling bonds of duty, obligation and tradition, and entertain the possibility of a life outside of the role he is destined to play. In this regard, the film can be seen as an exploration of the public’s fantasy “that it must be wonderful to be a king” (to quote one of several titlecards that ironically labours this point). Although the whole film has a sense of built artifice, the sections set in Heidelberg have the rightful sense of a dream, a concocted world that can be banished – and will be – at any moment. This is accentuated in the penultimate scenes of the film highlighting Karl Heinrich’s deflated return to Heidelberg as King. The beer garden that once teemed with dancing and singing students is now depopulated, a dusty domain occupied by a scattering of disenfranchised and frankly unattractive families.

But the true and lasting emotion of Old Heidelberg is generated by the doomed romance of Karl Heinrich and Kathi (Shearer), a waitress who joyously serves beer to the ever-thirsty students. Kathi represents the spontaneity, corporeality and genuine feeling that are constantly evacuated from Karl Heinrich’s life. There is a sense of immediacy and recklessness in their attraction that manages to cut through his understandable sense of reserve – she immediately announces to him that “a prince, after all, is only a human being”, and unself-consciously demonstrates the properties of the bed he is going to sleep in. But although there is a wonderful sense of movement and even gaiety in these scenes they also seem a little pinched or snatched, always shadowed by the real world that we – and they – know will come crashing in (and that also keeps asserting itself in such details as the letter sent to Karl Heinrich’s tutor, Dr. Jüttner [the wonderful Jean Hersholt], that outlines the details of his charge’s arranged marriage). Shearer’s often exuberant performance as Kathi lacks the characteristically subtle dimensions and nuances that defines the ensemble acting in such works as The Marriage Circle (1924), and often makes Lubitsch’s cinema a study in sophistication (which reaches its height in the gossamer-worldliness of Herbert Marshall’s Gaston Monescu in 1932’s Trouble in Paradise). Novarro’s Karl Heinrich is a more successful performance, using the actor’s sense of reserve and discomfort to emphasise the character’s sad predicament.

But ultimately it is the film’s rich use of images, symbols, motifs and movement that are its “crowning” achievement. This is wonderfully demonstrated by Old Heidelberg’s use of the “carriage ride” as a symbol of both freedom and containment. In one of the earliest scenes we see the young Karl Heinrich travelling in a carriage through the city with his uncle the King. This is one of many moments that represent and highlight the process of initiation: the King is gently tutoring his nephew in the protocols and gestures of public appearance. This reserved and controlled performance is broken by the Crown Prince when he glimpses a group of children waving frantically in his direction, and responds in turn. This expression of joy and true emotion is then quickly curtailed by the King’s admonishment. Towards the end of the Heidelberg idyll, the film gives an “answer” to this earlier scene. As Karl Heinrich speaks of his love for Kathi, he fantasises an open carriage ride through the town in which he announces to all and sundry the depth of his feelings for her. The procession of the carriage through the streets in this visualised fantasy is much less controlled, recklessly careening close to the bystanders who pass by in a blur. Although there are several other moments that also feature carriage rides, and equally resonate with the emerging pattern I’m describing here, it is the final scene of the film that completes and darkens this motif. As Karl Heinrich leaves Heidelberg for the last time, the wheels of his carriage dissolve into those of the vehicle that transports him from his arranged wedding. The austerity and simplicity of these final images is quite shocking. While there are a few cutaways to figures in the crowd watching the procession, and commenting on the pomp of the occasion, the image of Karl Heinrich remains fixed in a composition that crops out his new wife (other than a glimpse of white taffeta at the side of the frame), shows the receding public isolated through the side window, and gives us time to fully register this character’s transformation into a fixed and desiccated public symbol. It is one of the starkest and most remarkable moments in Lubitsch’s cinema.

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg/Old Heidelberg/The Student Prince (1927 USA 105 mins)

Prod Co: MGM Prod, Dir: Ernst Lubitsch Scr: Hans Kraly [Hanns Kräly], based on the play Old Heidelberg by W. Meyer-Förster, and the operetta The Student Prince by Dorothy Donnelly and Sigmund Romberg Phot: John Mescall Ed: Andrew Marton Art Dir: Cedric Gibbons, Richard Day

Cast: Ramon Novarro, Norma Shearer, Jean Hersholt, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Philipe de Lacy, Edgar Norton, Bobby Mack, Edward Connelly

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Associate Dean, Media, in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015) and American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave).