‘The Lubitsch Touch’, Critical Essay

Two scenes from Lubitsch’s later films – The Shop Around the Corner (1940) as well as Heaven Can Wait (1943) will be explored in this essay in relation to Andrew Saris’ remark on the ‘Lubitsch Touch’.

Sarris states, “A poignant sadness infiltrates the director’s gayest moments, and it is this counterpoint between sadness and gaiety that represents the Lubitsch touch, and not the leering humor of closed doors. Thus, describing Lubitsch as the Continental sophisticate is as inadequate as describing Hitchcock as the master of suspense”.

The films in focus are romantic comedies that explore heavier themes and concerns within society. This paper will proceed to delve into Lubitsch’s directorial style beyond the transparent aspects of the ‘Lubitsch Touch’ while considering Saris’ statement.



Image sourced from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0523932/

The Shop Around the Corner, set in Budapest, Hungary was directed and produced by Ernst Lubitsch and is a 1940 romantic comedy. The film’s screenplay was composed by Samson Raphaelson and is an adaption from a 1937 Hungarian play titled, Parfumerie. The plot revolves around two central characters, Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) who work together in the gift shop, Matuschek and Co. in the heart of Budapest. Both Kralik and Novak act on their character’s motivation to find a heterosexual partner and are exchanging letters to prospect companions. Despite the characters hatred for one another, they are corresponding anonymously via post and are falling in love.


The film possesses a deep ‘Lubitsch Touch’ as well as various underlining subtexts. The film’s plot incorporates heavier issues within society including attempted suicide, adultery, betrayal as well as malicious behavior and brutal exchanges between co-workers all amongst a lurking atmosphere of loneliness. The character’s pursuit for stability within heterosexual relationships and the need for a secure income resides within the film’s subtext. However, despite the film’s attention to heavy issues along with the character’s fears, the narrative rarely allows for the audience to lose sight of the romantic comedy.


A particular scene within The Shop Around the Corner will be analyzed while considering Saris’ observation of Lubitsch’s less transparent ‘touch’. The boss of Matuschek and Co. Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) fires his oldest working employee, Alfred Kralik. Matuschek does not provide Kralik with a valid reason for terminating his employment. However, Matuschek is convinced that Kralik is having an affair with his wife of 22 years. Shortly after firing Kralik, Matuschek’s hired private detective arrives at the shop with his full report. The detective confirms Matuschek’s suspicions that his wife is committing adultery, although Matuschek learns that his wife is having an affair with another employee, Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut). Upon discovering that his wife is cheating on him with Vadas, a showy, distasteful employee (who is constantly avoiding confrontation by ducking behind closed doors) as apposed to his original suspect – Kralik, a likeable, charming man, Matuschek attempts suicide.


The darkest scene within The Shop Around the Corner features the film’s quirkiest and arguably, most humorous character, the ambitious yet mischievous employee, Pepi Katonam (William Tracy). The meeting with the private detective and Matuschek concludes with Matuschek saying not particularly to anyone, “She just didn’t want to grow old with me”. In a dazed state, Matuschek walks across the shop and vanishes off-screen into his office. The camera holds on Matuschek’s door for a moment with the film’s silence never being so evident. Pepi enters the shop and answers a phone call to his delight from Mrs Matuschek. Pepi impersonates another co-worker and tells Mrs Matuschek that “He will give a good scolding to the rascal”, referring to himself, the delivery boy and disgruntled errand runner for Mrs. Matuschek.


Suspicious of the abandoned shop, Peppi spies into Matuschek’s office to discover Matuschek about to shoot himself. The camera resides outside of the door, never to reveal the brutal scene that would have soon been censored. “Don’t do that Mr Matuschek”, Pepi screamed as he vanished through the door racing towards his boss. Thuds and crashes take place off-screen and a bullet immediately dashes through a light fixture within the frame. Pepi acquires the gun and places it outside of the door – allowing for the audience to see the weapon without sighting the incident.


The depicted scene demonstrates Lubitsch’s counterpoint of gayety and sadness. Lubitsch’s placement of Pepi’s character within the scene provided a level of comic relief to the otherwise morbid scene. The described previous shot to the attempted suicide featured Pepi making a prank on Matuschek’s wife – his voice stretching to a comical high pitch to imitate his co-worker. Furthermore, token aspects of the ‘Lubitsch Touch’ were present within the scenes – being the director’s use of off-screen space and closed doors as well as Lubitsch’s avoidance of censorship. However, it is Lubitsch’s use of comedy that functions in unity with sadness which underpins Saris’ observation of Lubitsch’s auteur style. In this instance, Saris’ statement could perhaps be upturned to say that a ‘gay moment infiltrates a poignant sadness’ with the overriding sadness that occupies the scene.


Heaven Can Wait (1943) will also be analysed within this paper in relation to Saris’ statement on Lubitsch’s auteur style. The film was produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch – being one of Lubitsch’s last completed films under his directorship before his death in 1947. The film’s screenplay was likewise by Samson Raphaelson and was again an adaption of a play, in this case, ‘Birthday by Leslie Bush-Fekete’.  The prologue to the film reads, ‘Henry Van Cleve’s soul has passed through the Great Divide, he realized it was extremely unlikely that his next stop would be Heaven. And so, philosophically, he presented himself where innumerable people had so often told him to go’.


Van Cleve is convinced he belongs in Hell as his “Whole life was one continuous misdemeanor”. However, Van Cleve is unable to relay ‘an outstanding crime’ he has committed to “His Excellency” (Laird Cregar), Hell’s charismatic gatekeeper. His Excellency becomes excited by Van Cleve’s flirtatious exchange with an acquaintance that takes place in his office. With His Excellency now interested in Van Cleve’s promiscuous history, Van Cleve indulges in a tale of his life, telling “Perhaps the best way to tell you the story of my life, is to tell you about the woman in my life”. Although the opening scene of the film will not be further analysed in this paper, it significantly establishes Van Cleve’s life long motivation with his pursuit for wooing woman as well as provides context for the scene that will be explored.


The film proceeds to feature elliptical episodes of Van Cleve’s life, structured around his acquisition for woman. Within the film, Lubitsch goes beyond the closing of doors and alludes to occurrences that are left to the viewer to devise. Additionally, many of the film’s central characters disappear from the plot without the narrative directly acknowledging their death. The narrative’s lack of concern along with the absence of cause and affect with the death of numerous characters suggests transience for the characters as well as life’s mortality.


The scene of focus from Heaven Can Wait is of the finality of Van Cleve’s life where he has his last taste of his life long motivation – pretty woman. The scene commences with a fade from Van Cleve’s bedroom door, establishing his place of rest. An aging nurse awakes Van Cleave from a dream to take his temperature. Van Cleve awakes to his distaste of the nurse and reminisces on his dream… Van Cleve describes, “He came back with a big luxury liner, floating on an ocean of whiskey and soda. And instead of funnels there were big black cigars. And on top of the bar sitting in a lifeboat, was the most beautiful blonde wearing a Merry Widow costume. She dived into the whiskey and swam right over to my bedside”. Van Cleve’s excitement radiates as he sings ‘the most beautiful blonde’ amidst his story. Van Cleave continues, “Henry she said, how about a little dance”. And the man from the boat took an accordion out his pocket and he played ‘The Merry Widow Waltz’. The girl held her arms out to me and she started to dance. Well with him playing and her dancing and me up to my neck in whiskey anyhow. Well I put my arms around that beautiful girl and was just about to dance with her when of all people you cut in”.


Upon being advised by the butler that the night nurse had arrived, the older nurse exists the room and checks her image in the mirror outside Van Cleves door. She walks off while the camera steadies on the mirror. The night nurse comes into view, also checking her image in the mirror – revealing a young blonde, much a like what Van Cleve described. Satisfied with her image, the nurse sasses through Van Cleve’s door. The door closes behind her and the camera rests on the door for a moment before ‘The Merry Widow Waltz” begins to play. The scene has become full circle, finalizing Van Cleve’s desire with his dream coming true. The camera slowly pulls back from Van Cleve’s door and spirals out of his family home in a dream like state – Lubitsch softly signifying Van Cleve’s demise. Furthermore, Van Cleve remains vulnerable to his weakness in his final moments – one that caused ‘a life of misdemeanours’.


The scene that features the main character’s death should be immensely sorrowful however, Lubitsch’s comedic touch to a morbid event lightens its harsh reality. It is notable that Saris’ comment on Lubitsch’s auteur is highly visible within the scene with Lubitsch’s combination of sorrow and humor. While the scene features some of Lubitsch’s in depth workings as an auteur, Lubitsch allows for some of his more candid stylistic aspects to be visible – notable through use of off-screen space and closed doors. Furthermore, Van Cleve’s personal reason for presenting himself in Hell, “A life of misdemeanors” suggests a concern, perhaps directly from the director, for coming to the end of a life filled with wrong doings along with a lack of triumph. Additionally, the narratives fleetingness with many of the films central characters implies Lubitsch’s sentimentality for mortality.


Works Cited 

Heaven Can Wait, 1943. [DVD] Ernst Lubitsch, New York, USA: Twentieth Century Fox.


Lubitsch.com. 2013. Lubitsch Touch. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.lubitsch.com/touch.html. [Accessed 23 October 13].


Sarris, A, 1980. Ernst Lubitsch: American Period. Cinema: A Critical Dictionary: The Major Film-makers, Ed. 1, 643-650.


Shooting Down Films. 2009. Heaven Can Wait. [ONLINE] Available at: http://alsolikelife.com/shooting/2009/06/972-114-heaven-can-wait-1943-ernst-lubitsch/. [Accessed 23 October 13].



The Shop Around the Corner, 1940. [DVD] Ernst Lubitsch, Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video.


Toles, G, 2010. Acting Ordinary in The Shop Around the Corner. Movie – A Journal of Film Criticism, Issue 4, 1-15.