Once upon a time there was a Baron (Max Kronert) who was keen to see his nephew married so he could inherit the Baron's fortune. However, the nephew, Lancelot (Hermann Thimig), had no interest in doing so, for he was terrified of women, and when the word got around about all that money that was coming his way, the local nubile ladies sought him out, which terrified him even more. There was only one answer to his dilemma and that was, he believed, to join a monastery where he could be in the company of men without the opposite sex, but the Baron had other ideas: there was an inventor, Hilarius (Victor Janson) nearby, who was a dab hand at creating living dolls...
This was based on a story from E.T.A. Hoffman, whose most famous stories were adapted into Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Tales of Hoffman in the nineteen-fifties, to initial indifference but future cult adulation. The yarn here was based around an automaton as one of those sections had been, though there was a twist as the robot, if you like, was actually not seen for most of the film as it was the woman she was based upon who stood in for her: the Baron reasoned that Lancelot would be happier to marry a doll than a real person, so had commissioned one from the inventor. But there was a mix-up when the doll lost an arm, and the girl had to pretend.
That girl was played by Ossi Oswalda, an ex-ballerina who was the discovery of famed director Ernst Lubitsch, and one of the biggest movie stars between the wars to come out of Germany. As was the case with too many of those celebrities in silent film, her career floundered at the advent of sound, and when the Nazis came to power she fell away from the limelight, eventually fleeing to Czechoslovakia where she died in 1947, utterly forgotten. It was a sobering story, and makes you sad to see her in her prime in Die Puppe (or The Doll, as it is often translated), pretty in a cheeky sort of way, and full of sparkling life, obviously loving being the centre of attention, as she was back then.
Oswalda essayed a comic reading of her role that has dated better than her co-star Thimig's efforts, though nobody here was aiming for subtlety as they all played it as broadly as possible. She gave the impression of being in on the joke, exhibiting a joie de vivre that enlivened what was a deliberately artificial fairy tale of the sort that would be filmed by German filmmakers for decades, this being the land where many of the most durable fables had originated, after all. It would have been forgotten about almost completely, as its leading lady had, had it not been for Lubitsch at the helm: already a name to conjure with in the period during and after the First World War, his star would only rise and by the time of his death, also in 1947 coincidentally, he was one of the most respected directors imaginable.
His "Lubitsch Touch" was best employed in sophisticated comedies, those of his stay in Hollywood his most celebrated, though as interest in the German entertainment around the time of the Nazis power grab has only increased, the work he crafted in his native land has equally proven of a certain fascination. The Doll, of all his early projects, is probably the best known thanks to its fantastical narrative and nascent form of his romantic good humour, though the tone was closer to screwball as it would be in the thirties into the forties, with lots of running around and manic behaviour (the scene of Lancelot chased by the would-be brides was reminiscent of Benny Hill). The fantasy element was rather slighter than you might think since the automaton was sidelined for most of the running time so Ossi could take its place and act accordingly, but the sense of having a good time at any cost was infectious, and remarkable in light of what had been happening to Germany in then-recent years. But that was Lubitsch, he would always find the humour and romance in any situation he dreamt up.
[This is included on the Eureka Masters of Cinema box set entitled Lubitsch in Berlin, a Blu-ray special edition of six silents from his filmography. Those extras:
High-definition restored transfers of all six films
Original German intertitles with optional English subtitles
Robert Fischer's 2006 feature-length documentary Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood
Exclusive concertina score for Die Puppe, by Bernard Wrigley
PLUS: A booklet containing liner notes for all six features by film-writers David Cairns, Anna Thorngate, and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.]