Saying this is my favorite silent movie is like trying to explain to someone why I learn Finnish. I don’t need it, it’s not necessary; there are better languages out there, but experiencing and appreciating it is a whole different deal. At times I am confused and slightly bored, yet I know it is worth it.
I have long wondered what makes the film so good. The story itself isn’t so serious or thorough. Even the cast didn’t give it a lot of importance. Now, when watching it again a few days ago, I realized this is a masterpiece that has for long been looked over. The players and crew were probably not even aware of the magnificence of the project they involved themselves with.
Sumurun is a German film directed by Ernst Lubitsch that was released in 1920. It was filmed in Berlin at UFA studios with much delight. Pola Negri herself called the production an “easy chore”. She had been in a stage production of it in Poland and in Germany with Ernst Lubitsch, under Max Reinhardt’s direction. They were both very familiar with the story and I believe it must’ve been great fun to star in a film version of it. The costumes were easily attainable because they were from the German production. It was Ernst Lubitsch’s grand idea to bring this pantomime from the stage to the camera. Once again, Mr. Lubitsch, thank you.
This movie is something like Aladdin, though I personally like this better. It’s based on one of the stories from Arabian Nights. There’s a love triangle, emotions at a nearly extreme spectrum, silliness, dancing, and a lot of magical imagery. There’s not really any magic…To me, the movie just seems like a fairytale. Every movement of an actor is a spell and the movie merely a storybook. They don’t really need to say anything…I am informed by their faces whether they are to be blessed or cursed.
The film starts with a troupe of performers riding their travelling cart, as they wait in boredom to reach their next destination. Yanaaia (Pola Negri), the performer who stands out the most, is the ambitious dancer who always enjoys a good flirt. Another one is a drunk old lady (Margarete Kupfer) who amazes others with a snake and her extravagant personality. The others aren’t really mentioned as much, except for Yeggar (Ernst Lubitsch), a hunchback who is deeply devoted to Yaanaia. We see her kissing a performer in the cart in order to satisfy her insatiable craving for passion. By now, we know that Yanaaia is voluptuous and easily tempts with her looks. Unfortunately, Yeggar awakes and sees them both. He reacts by shoving the performer away from her, but they just throw him out of the cart in the middle of the desert.
They’re like a band on tour. They have their dramas. It is Yeggar’s nightmare to lose Yanaaia though. When stopping to rest and eat in the desert, they encounter a slave trader who sure is transfixed with Pola Negri’s looks. Oh, he can’t wait to tell the great Sheikh! But old Yeggar just tells him to scram because of his jealousy. Pola (I’m just going to call her this now) is greatly excited by the thought of being part of the Great Sheikh’s harem. Now, that’s an honor.
They go on their way and arrive at an old Arabian city. By the way, this is way in the past, in case I forgot to say that. The scene switches to the palace of the Great Sheikh (played by Paul Wegener) and the girls of the harem gather around the Sheikh’s favorite, Sumurun (played by the beautiful Jenny Hasselqvist), and excitedly tell her that the cloth merchant has arrived. The lovely Harry Liedtke plays Nur al Din, the cloth merchant, who is as equally devoted to Sumurun.
They both spend some minutes gazing into one another’s eyes (who can help being in love?) while the Sheikh discovers Sumurun is not around. After bullying one of the girls into telling him, he finds Sumurun…
It’s probably not a good idea to dream and sigh knowing the Sheikh. Oh, and saying the name of another man…
Sheikh sees her and a man whistles for her to come to the window. Sheikh is appalled. This man turns out to be the young Sheikh, who also has his sights on Sumurun.
The old Sheikh feels betrayed and almost stabs Sumurun when the slave trader comes and announces the arrival of a dancer with exotic beauty.
We then are moved to scene where the troupe arrive to this Arabian town. Men are spellbound by Pola’s looks and Yeggar, out of jealousy, removes her from the stage.
The young Sheikh (Carl Clewing) arrives and forbids the troupe to set up their tent/venue where they will perform. But someone changes his mind.
Already we could see some seduction from Madame Negri. The thing was, I believe, that Lubitsch like blending his comedies/dramas with sex. He captured this seduction scene so well; really knew how to frame Pola’s face.
The movie becomes a bit more dramatic as it progresses. The cloth merchant gives some clothes to the entertainers and Pola is immediately smitten.
I just want to make it clear that I really love Pola Negri and Harry Liedtke together. They’re so fun to watch on the screen.
This time, their encounter is quite awkward.
Nur al Din is the only man who doesn’t fall for Pola. His heart really is faithful to Sumurun.
But things always do get better! There is a performance…and the Great Sheikh is invited…
Pola Negri’s performance in this part is clearly one of the reasons why this film was not considered for children and was heavily censored in America. She is a dancer…yet her dance is a form of stripping. Her movements and the lustful faces she puts are sensual. The men in the audience were swooned, especially the Sheikh.
You could really see how freely she moves as a dancer. She’s not ashamed to show her art in this manner. Her twirls are like magic! She’s just fascinating. Oh, and she throws the great Sheikh her beautiful scarf.
By the way, this part was cut out from the black and white version of the film, the one with the blurry quality. Many of its suggestive parts are censored, which takes out the fun. I highly recommend watching the tinted version with my favorite score for this sole reason.
I’m going to stop summarizing until this part because, well, I don’t want to give out the whole film.
I will be honest here. Sumurun is not the most insightful, most dramatic, or funniest film one can see. It changed my life for numerous reasons and in many ways. For Touko Laaksonen’s sakes, I even tried to dress like Yanaaia for Halloween! After seeing it last week again, I realized this is not phenomenal, but still remains my favorite silent film somehow. First there are the costumes and the settings. Everybody looks otherworldly, especially the females. They’re more like exotic princesses. The settings, thanks to the restoration, glow. Another thing I loved were how the leading ladies danced. Jenny Hasselqvist, a prominent ballerina dancer, danced beautifully.
This was the second Pola Negri film I saw. Soon after I made that intelligent choice, I developed a tremendous fondness for her. I become so fascinated and obsessed with the film that there is a lot of Sumurun in my life, such as my internet accounts…
Half of the time I don’t know why I like something so much.
Really, there’s not much of a story here, but I’m still satisfied. It’s bizarre, but just my style.
The emotions are far more intense, not histrionic, but just right for the film.
It’s six acts, silent, sparked by the Negri charm, beautified with the Lubitsch touch and a magical dip in fantasy.
Not appropriate for little children..
But still sensual…
Poor Lubitsch. His last acting role was a madly jealous, depressed hunchback clown.
My feelings about this movie? Hmm, if I had vote for best picture for most creative and quintessential film, this would be it.
(P.S: This was released as One Arabian Night in America and Finland in 1921.)
This is my contribution to The Silent Cinema Blogathon hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Lauren Champkin. I was very glad to do this because of my dear love for silents. Don’t forget to check out other entries! 🙂