Adapted from the later parts of the novella of the same name by Prosper Merimee, Carmen is Ernst Lubitsch’s third surviving feature, and he was still firmly in the part of his career where his voice was muffled by studio needs. There was room for him to operate a bit within the bounds of this story of a Spanish army officer who allows himself to fall to his lowest through the wiles of a gypsy woman, but mostly this feels like Lubitsch continuing his early education in how to make films work overall. It’s his most accomplished film up to this point, for sure, but it also suffers from the silent film medium’s propensity for thin characterization due to the lack of dialogue.
Told in a wraparound narrative by a man around a campfire (something that doesn’t really pay off, to be honest), we watch Don Jose Navarro (Harry Liedtke) arrive to a new military post where he is due to fulfil the promise that his mother as well as his betrothed, Dolores (Grete Diercks). He reaches the small town of his new post and quickly falls under the power of the gypsy woman Carmen (Pola Negri). The mysterious alure of this gypsy woman is what drives Jose downward. He first succumbs to simply giving her some time, but when he’s supposed to arrest her for a crime, he ends up letting her go. This event causes his superior officer to strip him of his rank while, coincidentally becoming enraptured with Carmen himself. This comes to a head when Jose kills the officer in an impassioned moment, leading to Jose needing to leave the military life behind, all for the love of a woman who doesn’t seem to care for him all that much.
The portrait of the two main characters is interesting in contrasts. Jose is written as a hopeless Romantic, and Liedtke performs him with all of the grand, sweeping gestures of over the top silent acting. He’s completely in love with the wrong woman, mostly because he’s exotic (some depth in the writing and dialogue would have helped deepen this a bit), but the woman is pretty much the exact opposite. Negri plays Carmen much less extravagantly. Where Jose is a grand romantic, Carmen is a cynic with no real attachments to anything, and Negri performs her reactions to Jose with reserved disdain. It’s easy to see how she would simply abandon him as he descended in life. It was his uniform that attracted her to him, what little she was actually attracted to him to begin with, and as he became less important, she met him with just increasing dismissal.
Jose becomes just another bandit and smuggler while Carmen abandons things to go to Gibraltar where she organizes bandit raids on unsuspecting army officers and also falls in love with the famous matador Escamillo (Magnus Stifter). Everything has to come together tragically, and it does. It works well enough for the whole to feel as a single work (what was really missing from The Eyes of the Mummy), but those early scenes establishing our characters feel too thin for what’s asked of them later. It’s an issue in a lot of silent dramas where characters just don’t quite have the immediacy and depth required to make late dramatic twists and turns feel impactful.
There’s skill on display from Lubitsch this early in his career. There are more than one large scale, though all to brief, sequence from large crowd shots in the town to a gun battle towards the end. It’s clearly filmed and edited in a way that was probably influenced by how Griffith was filming things in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. Lubitsch was showing promise early, though the limits of the film’s length and the medium’s own constraints prevented him from going too far with it all this early.
However, after the dull disappointment that was The Eyes of the Mummy, it’s nice to see Lubitsch recovering with something handsome and well made. That it doesn’t connect fully is unfortunate, but he’s not done yet.
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