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06 June 2015

Anna Boleyn (1920)

Anna Boleyn/Anne Boleyn (1920) is one of the silent historical films directed in Germany by the young Ernst Lubitsch. Henny Porten starred as the ill-fated Anne Boleyn and Emil Jannings as King Henry VIII. Ross Verlag published a wonderful series of sepia postcards of the film, often with photos by the Rembrandt studio in Berlin.

Henny Porten in Anna Boleyn (1920)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 402/1, 1919-1924. Photo: Rembrandt Phot. / Messter Film, Berlin. Publicity still for Anna Boleyn (Ernst Lubitsch, 1920).

Henny Porten in Anna Boleyn (1920)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 402/2, 1919-1924. Photo: Rembrandt Phot. / Messter Film, Berlin. Publicity still for Anna Boleyn (Ernst Lubitsch, 1920).

Henny Porten, Anna Boleyn
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 402/4, 1919-1924. Photo: Rembrandt Phot. / Messter Film, Berlin. Publicity still for Anna Boleyn (Ernst Lubitsch, 1920) with Henny Porten.

The Bad Tempered King of England


Anne Boleyn was the second wife of King Henry VIII of England. Their marriage led to momentous political and religious turmoil. For Ernst Lubitsch' film the script was written by Norbert Falk (as Fred Orbing) and Hanns Kräly.

Lubitsch presents Anna (Henny Porten) as an innocent, a naïve and guileless young woman who is the newly arrived lady-in-waiting to the Queen. She catches the lustful eye of Henry VIII (Emil Jannings), who loves to feast, drink, hunt, and chase around after young beauties. He is tired of Queen to Catherine of Aragon (Hedwig Pauly-Winterstein), and annuls his marriage to her, against the wishes of the pope.

The pompous monarch breaks with Rome, forms the Church of England and marries Anne at the Cathedral. The marriage and the sumptuous festivities that follow are filmed by Lubitsch as spectacular crowd scenes.

Henry tells Anne it is her holy duty to produce a male heir to the throne. But when Anne only gives birth to a baby girl (the later Queen Elizabeth), Henry VIII soon has his eye on yet another lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour (Aud Egede Nissen).

The bad-tempered King charges his wife with adultery and treason, and imprisons her in the Tower of London. Anne is tortured and confesses to infidelity. She is sentenced to death and at in the final scene of the film she is beheaded.

Henny Porten and Paul Hartmann in Anna Boleyn
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 645/1, 1919-1924. Photo: Union. Publicity still for Anna Boleyn (Ernst Lubitsch, 1920) with Henny Porten and Paul Hartmann.

Emil Jannings and Henny Porten
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 645/3, 1919-1924. Photo: Union Film.

Henny Porten in Anna Boleyn
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 645/4, 1919-1924. Photo: Union Film. The baby represents the future queen Elizabeth I.

Henny Porten, Emil Jannings and Ludwig Hartau in Anna Boleyn (1920)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 645/5, 1919-1924. Photo: Union. Publicity still for Anna Boleyn (Ernst Lubitsch, 1920) with Emil Jannings, Henny Porten and Ludwig Hartau as the Duke of Norfolk.

Henny Porten and Ludwig Hartau in Anna Boleyn
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 645/6, 1919-1924. Photo: Union. Publicity still for Anna Boleyn (Ernst Lubitsch, 1920) with Henny Porten and Ludwig Hartau.

Henny Porten and Paul Hartmann in Anna Boleyn
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 645/7, 1919-1924. Photo: Union. Publicity still for Anna Boleyn (Ernst Lubitsch, 1920) with Henny Porten and Paul Hartmann.

Henny Porten in Anna Boleyn
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 645/8, 1919-1924. Photo: Union. Publicity still for Anna Boleyn (Ernst Lubitsch, 1920) with Henny Porten.

The time is worth spending


In Anne Boleyn, Ernst Lubitsch lets his characters breathe and reveal their corruption down to the tiniest of meannesses. He takes his time, which can try the patience of an audience accustomed to being carried away by action, but the time is worth spending.

A beautiful aspect of Anne Boleyn are the very lavish medieval costuming and the large and elaborate exterior and interior sets. The outdoor scenes are impressive for 1920: a court sports event, Anna’s coronation, a Spring Festival, a hunt, a joust, and even a street battle outside the cathedral.

Emil Jannings is striking and memorable as King Henry the Eighth. He seems to have stepped straight out of Hans Holbein's famous portrait of King Henry VIII.

To introduce the king, Lubitsch uses one of his favourite comedy techniques: the pull-back-and-reveal. A year earlier, he had used this technique in the opening shot of Die Austernprinzessin/The Oyster Princess (1919) to show the bloated Oyster King surrounded by his lackeys. That shot is duplicated here and the look is slightly more realistic but just as revelatory of the character.

Anna Boleyn’s innocence is underlined by Lubitsch through the contrast with the very different character of Jane Seymour (Aud Egede Nissen). Jane is in a sense a mirror image in negative of Anna (Henny Porten). In the late confrontation between the two Jane claims that she serves Anna, but Lubitsch once again positions Anna as innocent: here, dressed in a simple nightdress, Anna kneels before the haughty Jane in her fine clothes.

Ernst Lubitsch constantly composes shots in depth in Anna Boleyn, looking down corridors or through into larger rooms, from the early moments at the harbour where a set of doors are opened onto a bustling street, to the haunting final view of the scaffold.

Aud Egede Nissen in Anna Boleyn (1920)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 472/1, 1919-1924. Photo: Rembrandt Phot. / Union Film with Aud Egede Nissen

Ufa Tempelhof studio, set for Anna Boleyn
Ufa Tempelhof studio, set for Anna Boleyn. Album picture from Vom Werden Deutscher Filmkunst (Oskar Kalbus). Part 1. Silent cinema, Altona-Bahrenfeld (Cigaretten-Bilderdienst) 1935.

Bland characterisation


Most critics on the net have mixed thoughts about the film. Ian Johnston at Not Coming to a Theater Near You: "Anna Boleyn does everything to meet the requirements of the historical epic. (...) But the film suffers from Anna’s bland characterisation and a general plodding, predictable tone. It only really comes alive with the character of King Henry."

Lubitsch' film was not the only art work inspired by the tragic figure of Anna Boleyn. Anna has inspired or been mentioned in numerous paintings, novels and films.

In the cinema, she was first portrayed by Clara Kimball Young in a 1912 short film about Cardinal Wolsey. After the portrayal by Henny Porten followed Merle Oberon in the sound film The Private Life of Henry VIII which won an Oscar for Charles Laughton's portrayal of Henry. Oberon received an Oscar nomination.

Elaine Stewart played Anne Boleyn in the film Young Bess (1953), starring Jean Simmons. Geneviève Bujold won a Golden Globe Award, and was nominated for an Oscar, for her portrayal of Anne in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969). Dorothy Tutin was nominated for a BAFTA TV Award for her role as Anne in the mini-series The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970). When that mini-series was compressed into a film, Charlotte Rampling played Anne in the film version entitled Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1972). Finally, Natalie Portman portrayed Anne in the film The Other Boleyn Girl (2008).

Henny Porten in Anna Boleyn
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 401/2, 1919-1924. Photo: Rembrandt Phot. / Messter Film, Berlin. Publicity still for Anna Boleyn (Ernst Lubitsch, 1920).

Henny Porten, Anna Boleyn
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 401/3, 1919-1924. Photo: Rembrandt Phot. / Messter Film, Berlin. Publicity still for Anna Boleyn (Ernst Lubitsch, 1920).

Sources: Jason Ankeny (AllMovie), Fernando F. Croce (Slant), Ian Johnston (Not Coming to a Theater Near You), AllMovie, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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