Today, in the UK at least, the word "pantomime" means songs, dances, dames, villains to be booed, out of work actors, "He's behind you", and generally a good time to be had by all. It has developed out of longstanding traditions of popular theatre common throughout Europe, known at one point as "low opera". Sumurun, a German pantomime with which renowned theatre producer Max Reinhardt had great success in the mid-1910s, is not a familiar story, but the wild and wonderful tone with which it is played bears some similarities to how we understand the genre today.
Funnily enough, in the US the term pantomime is often used as synonym for "mime", in the Marcel Marceau sense, and indeed highly expressive acting in silent cinema is often referred to as "pantomime". Looking at the film version of Sumurun, it seems this is perhaps not entirely coincidental. Like the majority of Ernst Lubitsch pictures from this period, it takes place in a gloriously hammy world where actors grimace and gesticulate with shameless glee. Thank goodness for Lubitsch's sense of humour. By peppering Sumurun with touches of his absurd genius, he prevents it from being over-earnest and unintentionally funny. The Lubitsch style of comedy is nowhere near as pronounced as it was in all-out farces such as The Oyster Princess or The Wildcat, but it serves to soften the silliness of the melodrama with which it coexists. The comedy and melodrama do not interfere with each other, because the situations in themselves are not funny. Instead there is a line drawn between serious characters, and characters who exist purely to be comical. Incidentally, the occasional moments where the line blurs and the comedy figures get swept into the tragedy are among the most poignant I have seen in all of Lubitsch's work.
You see, Lubitsch was not just a master of screen comedy, he was a real craftsman of screen drama. Integral to Sumurun is his use of movement in depth. From the opening shot of a caravan approaching us from out of the desert, virtually all the motion is towards the camera. Often when characters look at each other, we are shown reverse angles in which they are virtually staring into the lens. It's almost a kind of audience participation (think pantomimes again!), in that we are made to feel we share the space of the film's world rather than that we look in on it. Conversely however Lubitsch sometimes frames the more dramatic events deep in the background, giving us a kind of panicky feel of separation. At this moment we should take time to consider the exquisite and elaborate set design of Kurt Richter, which here establishes contrasting tones for the different environments – a stark and barren outdoors, the squalid clutter of the poor district, and the rich opulence of the palace.
This was the last appearance of Lubitsch himself as an actor, and one of the few examples of his acting that is easily available today. His eccentric performance lies at the hammy heart of Sumurun. It is a very Germanic style of theatrical comic acting, exaggerated to the point of being almost grotesque, but something great fun to watch in the right kind of setting, as those familiar with the best of Emil Jannings or Rudolph Klein-Rogge will know. However Lubitsch is outshone by his opposite number, the old hag played by Margarete Kupfer, who is again very overstated but in a manner that is entertaining, especially in her lurching drunk act. Paul Wegener is marvellous as the old sheikh, treading the line between pomposity and genuine menace, and thus very much in tune with the picture as a whole. Finally an honourable mention goes to the handful of black supporting actors, who appear in a number of Lubitsch pictures and whose names I have never been able to find. None of these guys especially stands out, but they are all clearly adept at the Lubitsch comedy form of sudden reactions and surprise expressions.
Sumurun is not without its detractors. True, the complexity of the interwoven subplots, the fast-paced editing and the lack of intertitles make it a little hard to follow. Also I accept that the acting styles may seem a little inappropriate and jarring to some. But I also feel that those who would demand comprehensibility or naturalism from a picture like this are really missing the point. You need to buy into the sweeping melodramatics and theatrical slapstick, and simply let it all wash over you without taking any of it too seriously. In fact, people who don't like Sumurun are probably the same sort of people who would not enjoy shouting "Oh no it isn't!" at a bunch of out-of-work actors in tights. Pantomime: A distinct art form that must be accepted it for what it is.