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20 July 2016

Madame DuBarry (1919)

The German silent film Madame DuBarry is an operatic version of the life, loves and death of the legendary 18th-century French courtesan. Pola Negri plays DuBarry, who sleeps her way to the court of King Louis XV, ultimately becoming his mistress. It was one of the spectacular productions which Ernst Lubitsch made in Germany before he became world-famous for his sophisticated sex farces in Hollywood.

Pola Negri and Harry Liedtke in Madame DuBarry (1919)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 627/2, 1919-1924. Photo: Union. Publicity still for Madame DuBarry (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919) with Pola Negri and Harry Liedtke.

Pola Negri
Pola Negri. German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 247/1, 1919-1924. Photo: Alex Binder.

Victim of the Reign of Terror


Ernst Lubitsch's Madame Dubarry is a historical epic which opened as the premiere attraction of Berlin's impressive Zoopalast theatre on in 1919. Silent film diva Pola Negri plays the milliner’s apprentice Jeanne Marie Vaubernier, who has come to Paris from the country.

In a deal to save her lover Count DuBarry (Karl Platen) from financial ruin, the Parisian milliner's maid alias Madame DuBarry (Pola Negri) becomes the influential mistress of the reigning French king, Louis XV (Emil Jannings).

However, this relation is much to the dismay of the Minister of State and Finance, Choiseul (Reinhard Schünzel). This brilliant schemer had planned for his sister, the Duchesse de Grammont, to become the Queen of France. Choiseul thus starts a campaign to turn the people against the monarch and his new mistress.

Jeanne soon becomes a symbol for the extravagance of the much-hated aristocracy. When the king dies, Jeanne is ousted by the angry masses and she becomes one of the victims of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution.

Pola Negri in Madame Dubarry
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 627/4. Photo: Union Film. Pola Negri in Madame DuBarry (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919). By marrying the aristocrat Guillaume DuBarry (Karl Platen), Jeanne will be accepted at the Royal Court and become Louis XV's mistress. Back right on this card DuBarry's brother Jean (Eduard von Winterstein) who concocted the plan.

Pola Negri in Madame Dubarry
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 627/5. Photo: Union Film. Pola Negri in Madame DuBarry (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919).

Far from historical accuracy


Madame DuBarry (1919) had everything: sex, intrigue, war, violence. The film was a success in both Europe (except in France) and the U.S., where it was released as Passion, and successfully re-issued in 1928. It was one of the greatest triumphs of Pola Negri.

Negri's flirtatious Madame DuBarry is both comical and sympathetic. Emil Jannings is also excellent as a lecherous, bombastic King Louis XV. Harry Liedtke plays Jeanne's first love, the student Armand de Foix.

Madame DuBarry (1919) was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, written by Norbert Falk and Hanns Kräly. It strays far from historical accuracy, but the narrative is at least coherent.

In reality, King Louis XV died 15 years before the beginning of the French Revolution and Madame DuBarry was long gone from Versailles by the time of the storming of the Bastille. She was 50 when she was executed during the Reign of Terror.

Despite these flaws, Chuck Reilly reviews at IMDb, "the gigantic mob scenes and the final shots of poor Pola being carted off to the guillotine are well-staged and resonate even with modern viewers".

Pola Negri in Madame Dubarry
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 627/6. Photo: Union Film. Publicity still of Reinhold Schünzel and Pola Negri in Madame DuBarry (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919). After the death of king Louis XV (Emil Jannings), his minister Choiseul (Schünzel) chases DuBarry (Negri) from the Royal palace.

Pola Negri and Reinhold Schünzel in Madame DuBarry (1919)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 627/7. Photo: Union Film. Publicity still of Reinhold Schünzel and Pola Negri in Madame DuBarry (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919).

Sources: Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Chuck Reilly (IMDb), Filmportal.de, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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