Anna Boleyn (1920)

*. It’s testimony to just how powerful the Tudor myth has been that this epic German production was made about the marriage of Anne Boleyn, a figure I wouldn’t have thought anyone living in Germany in 1920 would have known or cared about much at all.
*. The title may be a bit misleading, as it’s a story as much about Henry VIII (Emil Jannings) as it is Anne. In the U.S. it was released as Deception, which has a kind of trashy allure but may be even less descriptive. Who was being deceived here?
*. Of course any movie with Henry VIII as a character in it is going to feel like it’s about Henry, as he was a larger-than-life figure who dominated the court. But Anne Boleyn was no wallflower herself. Or at least the historical Anne wasn’t. Here, played by Henny Porten, she’s not given a lot of agency. There’s nothing cunning about this Anne. Rather, she is an innocent victim, ravished by a Henry who won’t take no for an answer. She isn’t playing hard to get but genuinely doesn’t want to be gotten, and becomes a very reluctant queen. This is not at all like the real Anne, who played a cunning game to become queen, and was only undone by her inability to give birth to a male heir.
*. Casting Anne this way is fair enough, if ahistorical. Audiences in 1920 wanted a virtuous Anne being wronged by her lecherous husband, a woman roughly wooed and then scorned. Yes, she has a courtier pining for her in the wings, Henry (Heinrich) Norris, but this is a love that cannot be. The Tudors weren’t quite this bourgeois, or Victorian.
*. Also not as Victorian was the Tudor taste in wallpaper. Royal palaces used tapestries instead. I did some research and apparently there was wallpaper back around this time, but it wasn’t the modern repetitive print style but something made to look like a tapestry. I other words nothing at all like what we see in the big staircase scene as Henry leads Jane Seymour past the protesting Anne.

*. Jannings is excellent as Henry. Mary Pickford counted this one of her favourite films and singled Jannings out: “It was the first time on the screen that a King had been made human. It has subtle, satirical humor.” As iconic as Charles Laughton’s Henry would become, it’s worth registering that Henry as the man of massive appetites is already here. Our first sight of him has him tearing into a massive side of beef while drinking out of a huge tankard, prefiguring Laughton ripping into a chicken. Henry was a man who liked to eat. But I wonder where this particular image of him got started. We don’t see Henry eating like this in any Holbein portraits.
*. Capably directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Nothing groundbreaking, but I like the use of the iris to show the focus of Henry’s gaze, and the meet cute between Henry and Anne resulting from her dress getting stuck in a doorway. But otherwise, this is big-picture filmmaking and a showcase for Jannings.
*. All the Tudor pictures are costume dramas, with the wardrobe being one of the most essential parts. It is again here. There is also spectacle, in the form of an impressive jousting yard. It’s interesting that Henry, whatever his self-illusions, was no warrior, so there are few if any battle scenes in movies made about him. The closest we come here are some shots of masses of horsemen charging across a field, but they are members of the king’s hunting party. Instead of swordplay the focus is always on the king’s “private life.”
*. It’s a beautiful restoration. Aside from Jannings though there’s not much interesting going on. Even Anne’s destruction fails to register much in the way of pathos, despite her constant humiliation, and at a full two hours I was impatient for the hooded executioners to do their work at the end. Not to fear though, as the movies weren’t going to get tired of Tudormania. Over a hundred years later, they’re still with us.

21 thoughts on “Anna Boleyn (1920)

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