The Lubitsch Touch


"The Lubitsch Touch" has long been the phrase used to describe the unique style and cinematic trademarks of director Ernst Lubitsch. But what exactly is "The Lubitsch Touch?" 

According to film historian/critic Scott Marks, "The Lubitsch Touch" was a phrase concocted by studio PR men eager to turn a great director, Ernst Lubitsch, into a brand name. As Marks points out, "the label adhered, and to this day, critics still bandy it about, ever hoping to unlock the mysteries of its meaning."

Here are just a few of the "definitions" provided by film historians and critics attempting to shed some light on the meaning of the fabled Touch:

"The Lubitsch Touch" is a brief description that embraces a long list of virtues: sophistication, style, subtlety, wit, charm, elegance, suavity, polished nonchalance and audacious sexual nuance."   -- Richard Christiansen

"The subtle humor and virtuoso visual wit in the films of Ernst Lubitsch. The style was characterized by a parsimonious compression of ideas and situations into single shots or brief scenes that provided an ironic key to the characters and to the meaning of the entire film."  -- Ephraim Katz

"A subtle and souffle-like blend of sexy humor and sly visual wit."   -- Roger Fristoe

"A counterpoint of poignant sadness during a film's gayest moments."   
     -- Andrew Sarris

" . . . The Lubitsch Touch, with its frequent Freudian overtone of revealing previously hidden motivations, the sexual story, by an adroit bit of business or a focus on a significant object.  The Lubitsch Touch signals to the audience that the old interpreter is at it again, letting us in on a priviliged perspective, embracing the audience as a co-conspirator of interpretation, an accomplice in the director's and the camera's knowingness."     -- Leo Braudy

"It was the elegant use of the Superjoke.  You had a joke, and you felt satisfied, and then there was one more big joke on top of it.  The joke you didn't expect.  That was the Lubitsch Touch...."    -- Billy Wilder

" . . . a blend of costumed Ruritania and Berliner sexuality toned down for American tastes."   -- Kevin Starr

"It was as famous a monicker in its day as Hitchock's 'Master of Suspense,' although perhaps not as superficial.  The phrase does connote something light, strangely indefinable, yet nonetheless tangible, and seeing Lubitsch's films - more than in almost any other director's work - one can feel this certain spirit; not only in the tactful and impeccably appropriate placement of the camera, the subtle economy of his plotting, the oblique dialogue which had a way of saying everything through indirection, but also -- and particularly -- in the performance of every single player, no matter how small the role."  -- Peter Bogdanovich 

"A style that is gracefully charming and fluid, with an . . . ingenious ability to suggest more than it showed . . ."    -- Leland A. Poague

" . . . a style that hinted at sex, that was playfully adult in its themes, without ever crossing the invisible boundary line that separated smut from genius."  
    -- Saul Austerlitz

" . . . 1) a specifically Eastern European capacity to represent the cosmopolitan sophistication of continental Europeans to Americans -- and with a double edge, as becomes clear in the 'American understood' gag;  2) a critical affection for flawed individuals who operate according to double standards;  3) a graceful way of handling music as an integral part of a film's construction."     -- Jonathan Rosenbaum

"The Lubitsch Touch" can be most concretely seen as deriving from a standard narrative device of the silent film: interrupting the dramatic interchange by focusing on objects or small details that make a witty comment on or surprising revelation about the main action."    -- Greg S. Faller

"In its broadest sense, this meant going from the general to the particular, suddenly conensing into one swift, deft moment the cystallization of a scene or even the entire theme.....the idea of utilizing the power of the metaphor by suddenly compressing the quintessence of his subject in a sly comment - a visual comment, naturally - that said it all."     -- Herman G. Weinberg

What is your favorite "Lubitsch Touch?"

The best way to experience the delightful Lubitsch style is to watch his films. Immediately you will begin to see what these critics were talking about . . . to experience the "Touch" for yourself. Would you like to share your favorite moment(s) from "The Cinema of Ernst Lubitsch" with the visitors to this website?

If so, please follow these instructions:

1) Go to the: email page
2) Use the drop-down box and select  "Lubitsch Touch"
3) Briefly describe your favorite "Lubitsch Touch." Please be sure to give the name of the film, along with your description of the particular scene, or directorial technique that "Touched" you.

Thanks to all of you who have emailed me to share your favorite moments from Lubitsch Films.  Here are some of your favorite "Lubitsch Touches" . . .

In "Trouble in Paradise," I'm fond of the farewell between Gaston and Mariette. They use lofty words to describe what might have been, while gazing off in the distance like star-crossed romantics.  What makes this so funny is that they are talking about sex, not love, and there is no illusion about it in their realm of wealth and theft.  "What might have been" is about sexual play, not romantic ideals.  The tension between the corny 'overacting' and the raunchy subtext is very funny, and bittersweet too.  Lubitsch always gave the audience unexpected pain in the laughter.

There are so many grand moments of the Lubitsch Touch sprinkled through every one of his films. I could pinpoint examples in Trouble in Paradise, Ninotchka, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, To Be or Not to Be, The Shop Around the Corner, Design for Living, or any other picture the master directed. The one moment, however, that I feel most showcases this "touch" occurs in his ultimate comedy To Be or Not to Be. The touch is exemplified throughout the entire film, merely due to its being a comedy about the Nazis made while their atrocities were taking place. Lubitsch makes the film suave, hilarious, and sophisticated in spite of its subject. That is the Lubitsch touch in itself! The moment that I consider most Lubitsch-esque is when Jack Benny returns to Hotel Europa after killing Prof. Siletski. Dressed as the professor, he enters the room to find his wife and a Gestapo agent waiting to meet him. The wife realizes itís her husband, the Nazi believes it is the real Siletski. Benny basically tells his wife (played to seductive perfection by Carole Lombard) that he
has just learned of her affair with a young aviator. "If her husband ever found out he would murder her!" He tells the two! That is the Lubitsch touch! Period!

My favorite Lubitsch touch... probably the end of MONTE CARLO, as the Countess watches "Monsieur Beaucaire." Vera watches from her box, and realizes to her growing horror that all in her life hasn't been what she assumed; Rudy sits in an opposite box, playing innocent but directing her attention to the stage; and the opera itself unfolds down below. It's not just an opera; the costumes are what you'd expect, but the lyrics have been changed to ordinary speaking English, and the actors are almost reliving what's happened in the movie to that point. EVERYTHING INTERACTS WITH EVERYTHING ELSE, and all furthers the story arc. For me, *that's* what "The Lubitsch Touch" boils down to - no "wasted" motion.

The opening of Lubitsch's "Merry Widow" shows both his touch in the number "Girls, Girls, Girls" and his ability to showcase an actor.  This is classic Chevalier as he more than just sings, he lives the song.  In fact, I think only one film uses him better and that is "Gigi" which in a way has a Lubitsch look in its depiction of Paris at the turn of the 20th Century.

One of my favorite scenes that demonstrates the Lubitsch Touch is George's homecoming scene in "Design for Living". Tom has visited Gilda and they had sex. When George sees Tom he is first surprised and pleased, talks without stopping until he notices the signs of Gilda's infidelity (Tom wears a suit in the morning, the breakfast table is laid for two...). The spectator knows already what has happened. Lubitsch makes marvelously visible how Tom fills this gap in his knowledge.

In Trouble in Paradise, two separate moments. Beginning, when the supposed nobleman is looking out over Venice and says that beginnings are so difficult and the butler suggests a cocktail. Then at the end, when the thief plods up the stairs and you (hear it) and know which woman he's chosen. Elegant, complex, funny and touching.


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