The Wildcat (1921) A Silent Film Review

Pola Negri stars as Rischka, the wildcat of the title. She is the leader of a gang of bandits. Their latest victim is Alexis, a caddish military officer on his way to his new post. Rischka and Alexis embark on a mad courtship leaving chaos in their wake. Director Ernst Lubitsch creates onscreen havoc that has rarely been equaled since.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

She’ll steal your heart. And your trousers. No, literally.

So by now we have established that German film of the silent era was not all horror and darkness. These folks knew how to have a good time and to share it on the big screen. Ernst Lubitsch’s one-two punch of saucy comedies and historical spectacles fed into the popular tastes of the time.

Lubitsch would only make two more German films after The Wildcat (Die Bergkatze)and both of those were dramas. Hollywood beckoned, anxious to add Lubitsch to its stable of European talent. So, I guess it is appropriate that Lubitsch’s last German comedy would be the most un-Hollywood thing imaginable.

Even the simplest scenes are surreal.
Even the simplest scenes are surreal.

Come to think of it, I’m not really sure what The Wildcat is. It is madder, louder and wilder than Lubitsch’s other films. In fact, it reaches such anarchic and surrealist heights that most reviews I have read end up comparing it to Monty Python. It has lots of romance but it’s a love story between cartoon characters. The military is thoroughly lampooned but this is not a particularly political film, making fun of the more general notions of militarism.

The closest I can come to describing it is Lieutenant Kije meets 7 ZwergeAudiences weren’t quite sure of what to make of it in 1921 either. It was an uncharacteristic flop for Lubitsch.

Here goes nothing:

Alexis with a few of his lovers…
Alexis with a few of his lovers…

Rischka (Pola Negri) is the daughter of the bandit Claudius (Wilhelm Diegelmann) and she rules the gang with an iron fist. All of the bandits are in love with her, particularly the goofy Pepo (Hermann Thimig). Rischka is having none of it. Meanwhile, the Commandant (Victor Janson) of Fort Tossenstein (which resembles an overgrown gingerbread house) is awaiting the arrival of Lieutenant Alexis (Paul Heidemann). Alexis is being sent to the remote fort because of his, er, success with the ladies.

Alexis is seen off by by his former lovers. All three thousand of them. As he travels to the fort, Rischka catches sight of him. She lures him into a trap and then robs him of his money and his pants. A shell-shocked Alexis makes his way to the fort on foot. Rischka pins his picture to the wall of her tent with his pants draped above it. Sigh. Love?

Rischka's trophy
Rischka’s trophy

What ensues is a cat-and-mouse game of attacks and counterattacks between Rischka and Alexis. He attacks her mountain base, she sneaks into his fortress, he chases her about said fortress…

The Wildcat is not long on plot (as is the case with many of Lubitsch’s comedies of this period) but it features plenty of comic situations.

Extreme Makeover: Bandit Edition
Extreme Makeover: Bandit Edition

What I always enjoy about Ernst Lubitsch films is that every character has an angle they are working. For example, when Rischka is met by Alexis’s jilted fiancee, she comforts the girl but also takes to opportunity to steal her jeweled hairpins. The Commandant uses bunk inspection as an excuse to steal his men’s cigars.

Pola Negri, of course, steals the show as Rischka. Negri was famous for her glamour but she wasn’t afraid to roll up her sleeves and throw herself into madcap comedy. In this film, her clothes are wild, her hair wilder and her personality is is volcanic. She shoots, shouts, fights, takes a buggy whip to her men (much to their joy), and generally creates merry mayhem. At one point, she even drags Alexis onto her lap for a passionate kiss.

Oh my!
Oh my!

Alexis, on the other hand, is a dandy who cannot be parted from his hand mirror. He is attracted to Rischka but that attraction is tempered with a healthy fear.

Both Rischka and Alexis play into the romantic archetypes of the period (with a little gender reversal) and then take things two steps beyond ridiculous. Rischka dreams of Alexis giving her his heart (a heart-shaped cookie) which she then munches with relish. Alexis pursues Rischka through the fortress but the chase immediately turns into a wacky race complete with a double staircase and fireman poles.

Wacky from start to finish.
Wacky from start to finish.

I will say this about the film: it remains crazy from beginning to end. You cannot accuse it of inconsistency.

So, do I recommend it? Yes, with some reservations. You see, the film succeeds at creating a surreal atmosphere but it succeeds a little too well. By the last twenty minutes, the strangeness-for-the-sake-of-strangeness gets a little grating. Also, Pola’s romance to little Pepo is not foreshadowed well and feels jarring when it is finally introduced.

By all means, see this film for Pola Negri’s performance, for the set design, for the sheer craziness. Just remember that is may be a bit tedious after a while.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½

Where can I see it?

The Wildcat is available on DVD from Kino. The release features a fabulous score by Marco Dalphane, which considerably enhances the viewing experience. It also comes as part of the Lubitsch in Berlin box set, if you want more Ernst.


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