Homoeroticism, transvestitism, gender confusion, dominance and submission, borderline pedophilia — there has never been another, and certainly will never be another like Ernst Lubitsch. No one who's familiar with his films could ever be surprised to see the myriad of taboo subjects covered in "I Don't Want To Be a Man", but even I was flabbergasted a few times in this one. You won't see many 1910s films like it. In fact, you won't see many 2010s films like it. And any you do see will certainly not have Lubitsch's inimitable gift for tackling such controversial material with such a light, innocuous hand ("the Lubitsch touch", as they call it).
Lubitsch left Germany and came to Hollywood in 1923, and the American film industry would never be the same. He brought with him his sophistication, his innuendo, and his playful mischievousness. He introduced Hollywood to sex. He pioneered the cinematic musical, making the first ever truly modern musical with "The Love Parade" in '29. His influence on American cinema is as great as anyone's since Griffith.
Most of us know Lubitsch from either his run of musicals — "The Love Parade", "Monte Carlo", "The Smiling Lieutenant", and "One Hour With You" — or his subsequent non-musicals, "Trouble in Paradise" and "Design for Living". That lattermost film was made in 1933, the last year before the Hays Code was enforced, and therefore, the last year that Lubitsch would ever be able to be the filmmaker he was born to be. Lubitsch's gift was to make comedy out of contentious subject matter, and so for a director who thrived off of suggestion and sexual innuendo, the Hays Code was effectively the end of Lubitsch. Of course, he made some good films after that — "To Be or Not To Be" and "Heaven Can Wait" came in the early '40s, and were both quality films — but Lubitsch would never again be able to make films that genuinely reflected his true nature as a filmmaker, and his unique sensibilities as an artist.
I think a little bit of censorship, however, was good for Lubitsch. The Hays Code obviously involved far too much of it, but even before '34 when the code really kicked in, there was still censorship. The standards were much looser, but there were standards, nonetheless. And so Lubitsch was forced to express things implicitly that he might otherwise have expressed more explicitly, to much lesser effect. The waggish innuendo that was Lubitsch's bread and butter was necessitated by the presence of censorship. Without some degree of censorship, his films would probably lack some of the qualities he's now famous for.
"I Don't Want To Be a Man" is a good example of this. The restrictions placed on filmmakers in the late 1910s in Germany were clearly even slacker than those in Hollywood's pre-code era, and so many of these early German silents by Lubitsch are more forthright and candid in their treatment of controversial subject matter than his American films were. In a way that makes them all the more riotously entertaining, but it also deprives them of that wink-of-the-eye style of suggestive humor that was Lubitsch's greatest asset as a filmmaker.
There's another reason these early silents by Lubitsch are interesting: They were made prior to the expressionist movement in German cinema. All of the German films I've seen from the '20s can be classified as either part of the German expressionist movement or the New Objectivity movement (an early movement in cinematic social realism). These Lubitsch films, however, from the years before expressionism catapulted German cinema to new levels of popularity, belong to neither movement. So I'm happy to see some German silents that aren't so easily categorized.
Truly, "I Don't Want To Be a Man" transcends classification. Almost never before have I seen such a plethora of taboo subjects in one film. We've seen some of these themes in other Lubitsch films, like the homoeroticism in "Design for Living" (though it was dialed down from Coward's source material), but to see so many of them crammed together into one 45-minute film was quite a ride. However controversial the subjects may have been, though, their treatment was as innocent as can be imagined. Everything in a Lubitsch film is lighthearted by nature.
Saying that a filmmaker was "ahead of his time" is one of the most overused statements in all of film criticism, but here I have no reservations in saying that Lubitsch's films were truly as far ahead of their time, socially, as any films I've ever seen. He was openly and merrily conveying aspects of human socio-sexual tendencies that many individuals are sadly still struggling to come to grips with today, in the year 2015, almost a century later. His films have been accused of being sexist, and watching a movie like "The Smiling Lieutenant", we can see, to a certain extent, why that has been considered. There has certainly been much debate over the nature of Lubitsch's significant role in determining the treatment of female characters in Hollywood cinema. Consequently, some of his films may be more controversial now than they were in their own time. As open-minded and liberal as he was, Lubitsch was never even remotely concerned with being politically correct, and so his body of work remains a fascinating place to study the direction that cinema has taken.
"I Don't Want To Be a Man" is a feverish assault of controversiality and taboo-breaking fun. It's not a great film, but it's a solid film and a joy to watch, and it's unlike anything else from its time (or from any other time, really). I would think that almost anyone would find it worth its 45 minutes, and fans of Lubitsch especially will, I'm sure, be quite satisfied with it.
RATING: 6.00 out of 10 stars