Die Bergkatze/The Wildcat:

The Funniest Movie You’ve Never Seen

 A review by David Gasten
January 1, 2007 (revised October 16, 2009)

Die Bergkatze (English title The Wildcat; UFA, 1921), starring Pola Negri, Viktor Janson, and Paul Heidemann.  Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.  Silent film, 82 minutes.  Restored by the F.W. Murnau Stiftung in conjunction with the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv with assistance from ZDT/Arte, 2000.  DVD released by Kino Video on December 5, 2006.

Click to buy Die Bergkatze (aka The Wildcat) at Amazon.com.

Description: http://www.polanegri.com/images/wildcat_dvd_3.jpg

I can’t tell you how elated I am that Kino Video has made Die Bergkatze (English language title The Wildcat) available on DVD.  This film has been criminally difficult to obtain—and to think it’s the first Pola silent (along with Sumurun) to receive a mainline DVD release, even before Passion/Madame DuBarry and Gypsy Blood/Carmen!  It almost seems too good to be true.   

Why the ecstatic praise for a movie nobody’s ever heard of?  Because not only is it one of Pola’s best and funniest movies, it’s also the one of the best and funniest silent movies ever—and this is coming from somebody who has seen a bunch.  And I’m not alone in this, as director Peter Bogdanovich has also listed Die Bergkatze in his personal top ten of the funniest movies he’s ever seen.  Not to mention that Die Bergkatze is a movie that is in a class all its own—there is literally no movie like it anywhere

Die Bergkatze Plot Summary

Pola Negri plays Rischka, the feisty and barbaric daughter of the captain of a den of nomadic robbers.  The robbers live in the mountains near a mythical place called Piffkaneiro, and are the fear and bane of a mountain fortress, who is officially led by the Fortress Commander (played by Viktor Janson), but whose real leaders are the commander’s wife and daughter.  The fortress receives a letter from higher authorities stating that Lieutenant Alexis (played by Paul Heidemann) is being transferred to their fortress as punishment, apparently for being too much of a ladies’ man and neglecting his official duties.  As Alexis leaves his former post, a massive throe of hanky-waving ladies rushes his car to see him off.  Alexis is so swamped with ladies that in order for his car to leave, the soldiers have to empty a bag of mice in front of the car to clear a path.   

Somewhere along the line, Alexis is riding in a sleigh en route to the fortress and he sees the beautiful Rischka out in the snow.  Being the ladies’ man that he is, he has to stop to flirt with her.  Little does he know that he’s about to get ambushed by Rischka's robber colleagues, stripped of his clothes, and sent walking down the road in his underwear (the sleigh driver got scared and took off without him).  But when Rischka empties Alexis’ pants later, she finds a picture of him and immediately falls in love with him. 

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (er, I mean, the fortress), the commander receives word that the robbers ambushed Alexis, and sends out two soldiers to find him.  They find poor Alexis walking up to the fortress in his underwear and bring him in.  The commander wraps a cape around him and introduces Alexis to his wife and daughter, and his daughter plays innocent and coy to ridiculous degrees.  The commander then tells Alexis that he will have to prove himself in order to win his daughter's hand.  He then puts Lt. Alexis in charge of his soldiers and sends them out to the robbers’ camp to exact vengeance on them.  The robbers respond with  guerilla tactics like having Rischka throw snowballs and bat at soldiers that pop up over the rock she’s hiding behind like a kitten; pretending to be dead and then attacking the soldiers that walk up to their “corpses”; and having their captain make coffee for them to run on (sounds like some college students I know).   The soldiers can’t take the rough beating they’re getting from the robbers, and send Alexis himself into the heat of the battle, located, of course, at the rock Rischka is hiding behind. And so the Alexis and  Rischka have their second confrontation. (Guess who wins?) The soldiers return home defeated, but the commander sees them coming from a long ways away, and is convinced that they have scored a major victory!  He goes out to meet the soldiers, congratulates them on their victory, and before Alexis can tell the commander that they got their butts kicked, the commander rewards him with the hand of his daughter and throws a huge party to celebrate their victory and the couple’s engagement (gee, that was easy).   

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The drunken fortress commander walks in on the robbers looting his wardrobe, who dress up in the outfits in the wardrobe closets to disguise themselves.  (Photo courtesy Kino International)  

While the soldiers and their guests are whooping it up at the party, Rischka and robbers sneak up on the fortress to do some late-night looting.  They ransack one of the bedrooms and wardrobe, where Rischka discovers a beautiful gown and some perfume.  Suddenly her girly instincts start kicking in, and she starts sampling all the perfumes an trying on the clothes, forgetting that she's there to rob the place.  She calls her robber colleagues in, when all of a sudden the fortress commander stumbles into the room where they are, so they all flee to the closets to hide.  Rischka's robber colleagues find some military outfits in the closet they are hiding in and try them on, and when the commander stumbles back out, the robbers decide to sneak out by looking like party guests.  The completely drunk commander sees them trying to escape and wants to party with them.  Realizing he’s completely wasted, they accept the invitation.  
At this point Alexis comes along and sees Pola a third time.  She tries to run away, but he chases after her and traps her inside one of the bedrooms and locks the door behind him.   She starts giving in to his advances, but Alexis' new fiancée proceeds to barge in on the make-out session (whoops).  Rischka then sneaks away with the now plastered robbers and carts them and their loot away.

Everyone loves a good spanking from Pola!  This is her very first scene in Die Bergkatze.  Click to buy Die Bergkatze (aka The Wildcat) at Amazon.com.

After Rischka gets home, she has a gratuitously expressionistic dream that Alexis is wooing her by giving his heart to her in the form of a gigantic cookie, and that they are dancing romantically to the tunes of a marshmallow man orchestra.  She rolls around violently on the bed, and her father (the captain of the robbers) sees this and decides that it’s time to marry her off.  The robbers all want to marry her, but when Pola poses the question herself, the robbers all get scared and run away.  All, that is, except for the wimpiest of the robbers.  Rischka laughs him off and starts harassing him.  Suddenly the wimpy robber gets a strong manly streak and starts roughhousing the heck out of her.  Rischka likes the thorough manhandling and they are married.  

While the robbers are having their wedding feast, one of them reads in the paper about Alexis’ wedding, and Pola abandons the wedding feast and her new husband in search of Alexis, hoping that she can get to him to make him change his mind before his marriage is consummated.  Will she be successful?

What makes Die Bergkatze unique?

The animal kingdom has the duck-billed platypus, the echidna, the kiwi, and the okapi, those being unique animals that are not really related to any other living animal.  And likewise, the movie world has Die Bergkatze, which is a unique animal all unto itself; there is really no known film like it from the silent era (or any era) of moviemaking.  

Here is what makes this movie unique:

1.  It is a German expressionist comedy/parody.  

German expressionist movies (and German silents in general) were almost always tragic, somber affairs dealing with the inability of man to escape his destiny, his social status, or the will of the powers that be.  In some cases they would be fantasies or melodramas, but they were always serious and dramatic in their subject matter if not outright dark and depressing.  Die Bergkatze differs greatly from this generality in that it is not only an expressionist comedy, but is also a parody of the entire German expressionist genre.  The disjointed, quasi-surreal expressionist sceneries (such as those in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and the overly organized, stilted, and almost inhuman acting style used in German expressionist films were purposely meant to recreate the world as perceived inside the soul of man, rather than as it actually is.  Lubitsch took the German expressionist settings and acting styles and made cartoons out of them.  If you’ve seen a lot of German expressionist movies, you will be able to catch the expressionist devices Lubitsch is making fun of.  The fortress is decorated in outlandish, swirling S- and U-shapes of gargantuan proportions and over-decorated to ridiculous degrees with swords, guns, cannons, and soldier statues. He has the actors overact to the point where they literally look like cartoon characters, and even adds little cues to let you know that he’s having them do this on purpose.  He even has one of the actors literally crying a river later in the movie.   Caligari, eat your heart out!

2.  It is a German expressionist film set in a natural setting.  

This is a pretty big deal because German expressionist films were almost always shot in the studio.  (Mountain films like The Holy Mountain [1926] were, of course, shot in natural settings, but not films in the expressionist genre.)  The Neubabelsberg studio where many of the German expressionist films were shot was used to create gigantic sets that would work as alternate realities for these movies to live and function in.  Even the gigantic forest scenes that the Niebelungen movies were set in, the village and flight scenes in Faust, and the space scenes in Woman on the Moon were all set in the studio.  As for Die Bergkatze, the great majority of the film was shot on location in the Bavarian Mountains, and the movie makes no attempts to hide it.  Even the expressionistic fortress was built on location in the mountains.  The interior scenes and the scene where Alexis is mobbed by ladies are shot in the studio, but there is no studio doubling whatsoever for the exterior scenes.  The film relies on the man-made artifices, the lens frames (see below), and the acting to create its expressionist atmosphere, and pulls it off really well.

Description: http://www.polanegri.com/images/die_bergkatze_02_4.jpg

This still frame from Die Bergkatze shows the natural mountain settings set in one of the myriads of lens frames used in this film (in this case, an oval shape).  In closer shots, you realize that the pistol Pola is holding is exaggeratedly oversized; this will be used later in the movie for comedic effect.  (Photo courtesy Kino International)

3.  The movie goes off the deep end using lens frames on its subject matter.

Occasionally in silent films, the cameramen would use lens frames to help get a concept across.  For example, a cameraman might put a vertical stripe lens frame over the lens to crop the space around a tower and therefore give the viewer a concept of how tall the tower is.  Lubitsch already used this device more than other directors of his time (or any time really), using crest shapes and horizontal, vertical, and diagonal stripes to frame the subject matter as needed for visual effect, but he was usually still chaste about it.  In Die Bergkatze, almost every other shot has some kind of lens frame: circle shapes, oval shapes, keyhole shapes, castle top shapes, binocular shapes, eye shapes, shark teeth shapes, amoeba shapes...it gets obnoxious but they look great and work very well within the film.   I defy you to find a film anywhere where the lens takes on so many abnormal shapes.  The preschooler in your family will have an absolute ball  looking at and counting all the shapes in the movie.
Combine all of these elements and you have one amazing duck-billed platypus of a movie that, now that it’s available, will keep film students and professors busy discussing, debating, and writing ad nauseum for years to come.  Meanwhile I think I can already hear Lubitsch laughing at them alongside Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock in some otherworldly dimension.

A Comedy Ahead of Its Time

Die Bergkatze was reportedly Lubitsch’s favorite of all of the movies that he directed in Germany, but it did not fare well with contemporary German audiences.  It takes a sharply satirical look at the German military and pokes fun of it and the artsy-fartsy pretensions of German movies of the period all in one fell swoop, which apparently was a little more than the audiences of that period could take.  It didn’t even make its way to America for release here in the States, and this was at a time when all kinds of Old World movies Pola appeared in were getting snapped up left and right for states rights releases in the US. 

For modern audiences used to British humor and humor aimed at the government or governmental structures, the effect is going to be completely different.  I suspect that modern audiences will recognize Die Bergkatze as a movie far, far ahead of its time—say by about fifty years.  If you like Monty Python movies, then you will likely adore this movie and probably think it looks eerily like Monty Python doing a silent movie.

A big key to watching this movie is this: if it looks really ridiculous, it’s supposed to be.  Put on your Monty Python goggles and appreciate it in that exact mindset, and you should be good to go.  There are gags galore in this movie that haven’t aged a bit, and the more times you watch the movie, the more gags you will catch. 

Pola the Comedienne

For most of her career, Pola Negri played serious, tragic characters, but humor was always part of her acting language too. If you watch Carmen or Madame DuBarry, for example, then you’re familiar with the feisty teenage characterizations that she initially wins your heart with.  But those were humorous elements of primarily serious characters.  In Die Bergkatze, we get to see Pola as an all-out comedienne, taking her feisty side to new heights and justly earning the title The Wildcat.

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A spirited Pola (left), a cigar-smoking Lubitsch (right), and other members of the Die Bergkatze production team outside the Bavarian ski lodge they were staying at during the filming of Die Bergkatze.  

Lubitsch also recognized that Pola was primarily a serious actress, which is why he generally used her for his dramatic pictures and used comedienne Ossi Oswalda for his comedic pictures.  But this movie called for a different character that was not Oswalda’s type, and that’s where Pola came in and hammed it up for the camera in this feisty personage.  

A couple of my favorite feisty moments from Pola in this movie are as follows.  First, she is introduced in the picture in a bad early-morning mood and whipping her robber colleagues.  The wimpy robber whom she would later be married to sticks his butt out at her, encouraging her to whip him; she does, he runs away, and then goes back for another one!  Another one is the "war" scene, where she throws the snowball at the solider and hides behind the rock, bopping soldiers that pop up over the rock. The party scene is loaded with extended bouts of feistiness too that are too numerous to go into here.  You can visibly see Pola laughing as Lubitsch is directing her through some of these portrayals; she really looks like she is having fun. 

The cartoonish look of Pola’s acting in Die Bergkatze may cause some modern viewers to think that it’s further proof that she was an overdramatic ham, as has been commonly believed for years.  To those people, I would say, “Look again.”  The cartoonishness of Pola’s acting in this movie is a veneer, and the realistic, “I really am this person” acting that she is best at shines right through whenever the acting sobers up a bit, such as when she hears about Alexis’ marriage and walks out on her own wedding ceremony.   The fact that she can be realistic and cartoonish in the same movie and bring the two together seamlessly is further testament of the broad scope of this amazing lady’s acting abilities.

How does this version of Die Bergkatze look and sound?

This copy of Die Bergkatze was restored by the Bundesarchiv-Fimarchiv in Berlin and the F.W. Murnau Stiftung from an original negative; the funding for this was made available in part by the Arte channel in France (which is essentially France’s answer to Turner Classic Movies).  For the most part, this edition of Die Bergkatze looks really crisp and clear.  There are places where it looks a little flickery, and at times some slight warping and some age spots show through, but overall it looks amazing for its age.  At times it even looks like it was shot much more recently than 1921, which is a big compliment. 

The soundtrack by Marco Dalphane fits the madcap comedic mood of the movie well for the most part.  There is one place where they flub the soundtrack up pretty noticeably, and that’s where the band is playing at the fortress party and the robbers start dancing to the music outside.  Here, of all places, they should be paying attention to how the music score fits the picture, but sadly the orchestra seems to be naval gazing through this part.  The soundtrack even ruins a great little gag where the robbers hop over the wall of the fortress, hear a sound, and pull out their guns, only to see a little dog coming out of his “fortress” doghouse.  This is one of my favorite gags in the movie, but it completely loses its impact because of the music.  But I’ll take these kinds of mistakes in an overall effective soundtrack over some of the atrocious, abject “works of art” that are being touted as “soundtracks” to some of the silent movies that are showing up on DVD’s and on TV.  I mean, the whirring sound of the film rolling as theme “music” that we go back to over and over again in the movie soundtrack?  Yep, that is in the actual soundtrack for Arte's broadcast of the German costume film Freidrich Schiller (1923).  Whoever committed this sonic crime, you know who you are, and you’re lucky I don’t live on the same continent as you.  Fortunately, we have no such ego manifestations in Die Bergkatze, or you’d have a much angrier reviewer on your hands.  

The intertitles of the Kino version are all in English and there are no alternate language subtitles, but overall the titles are well translated from the German.  There are a couple of places where the original humor gets lost in the translation though.  One is where the captain of the robbers starts crying Stan Laurel-style because Rischka neglected to steal Alexis’ underwear too.  The original idea was that his underwear was all torn and had holes in it to the point where he could feel the wind on his behind, hence why he says, “You have no idea how cold I am.”  They miss another one when a solider-in-waiting takes Rischka’s coat when she meets Alexis for the last time at the end of the movie.  The intertitle says, “That would suit you, wouldn’t it?”, which may be the literal translation, but “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” would be much funnier in English.  I don’t mind if the translation is not literal if you are transliterating it into English to get the humor across.  The Kino DVD of Sumurun has a couple of these “lost in the translation” moments too, but fortunately this is relatively rare in both DVD’s.

And may I mention again that this is the funniest silent movie you’ve never seen?  Your friendly reviewer laughed and laughed while watching this for the umpteenth time in preparation for this review, and laughed some more while thinking back on this or that part of the movie.  If you only buy one silent DVD this year, make this the one—it’s that good.  Who cares that it doesn’t have any extras?  I’m willing to wager that you also may find yourself coming back to it again and again.  Just keep in mind that it’s a real fluke in the Pola Negri catalog and that, to my knowledge, Pola never did anything like this again.

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