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Ernst Lubitsch's "Rosita" Rediscovered: Catching Up with Dave Kehr in Bologna

At the Italian festival devoted to discovering and rediscovering old cinema, the MoMA film curator discusses a beautiful new restoration.
Illustration by Yuwei Qiu.
An outlier among film festivals, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna is a lost paradise for cinephiles, comprising an apparently limitless retrospective treasure-trove. It is an outlier in the sense that there are few celebrities in attendance, there is no red carpet, no tiered delegate passes, and only a handful of very minor premieres (mostly documentaries about the old movies that otherwise dominate). All manner of movie-obsessives descend upon the city every summer, habitually exceeding the capacity of the festival's four indoor cinemas. Amidst the bustle, it is a place democratic in spirit and outwardly joyous in feeling. But the bounty in evidence on each and every page of the festival’s program puts hard-core movie buffs in a double-bind: seek out super-rarities that can only be found in the smaller, darker cinemas or bask in the glory of a canonical classic, whether rediscovered or seen, in such ideal conditions, for the first time. An enviable double-bind, to be sure, though no less excruciating for it.
My first visit to the festival was in 2014. As the years went by, I became increasingly blasé about the latter and absorbed in the compulsive routines of the former. And yet, I now realize that an insuperable part of the experience of the festival—one which, after all, is named for rediscovery first—is the need to engage and re-engage with the glories of bona-fide classics vaunted, lost, recovered, refurbished in these most heavenly of settings. For, though the many discoveries I made over the course of eight days in cinephile heaven are considerable, there is still a special place in my heart for the memory of seeing an original dye-transfer Technicolor print of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), as I did this year. If there is a more luscious aesthetic experience, I do not know it. The lesson is that there is an often-painful calculation to be made in balancing the incessant forward push of cinephilic discovery with a dose of big-screen masterworks seen among an audience of the similarly devout. In the midst of the program’s woozy overkill, it is easy to make slip-ups that linger in the mind for years to come. For instance, my most painful was skipping Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) several years ago—which I still, of course, haven’t seen—to catch You Can Change the World (1950), an admittedly fascinating 30-minute advertisement for the doggedly anti-Communist Catholic “charity” St. Christopher’s, directed by Leo McCarey. I can't discredit the interest of this little curio, of course, but in retrospect my tunnel-vision led me to pass up a chance not only to see Jeanne Dielman on the big screen for the first time, but also in the presence of Chantal Akerman, who died a little over three months later. In light of this and other unfortunate lapses in judgement, I have learned, on occasion, to tune out the voice in my head that whispers, “It’ll play again” and go right ahead.
Assuming, like me, that the majority of your cinephilic diet consists of discoveries made at home, one would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the sheer force of a movie projected in the Piazza (which is principally reserved for the most opulent films) to crowds that fluctuate in size but can, for the biggest movies, play for more than six or seven thousand people. The square—construction of the marketplace piazza began in the 13th century—is a suitably majestic match for certain epic films, and Ernst Lubitsch’s Rosita (1923) was one such experience. Indeed, Lubitsch’s first American film turned out to be something of an inspiration. Rosita was a natural fit for the Piazza’s grandeur and so, the following morning in the sun-baked courtyard of the Cineteca di Bologna, I caught up with Dave Kehr, the man responsible for engineering its restoration. Long one of America’s greatest film critics, Kehr transitioned to a position as Curator for the Department of Film at the Museum of Modern Art in 2013. It is clear that his work there has been essential—observing, that is, from afar as well as in cross-over programs at Bologna. During our discussion, I learned that Kehr has been overseeing the restoration of Rosita for roughly as long as his time at the museum; a fascinating testament to the seriousness of Dave’s mission. Our chat was, as befits the mood of the festival, leisurely and circuitous, featuring some interruptions from well-wishers and many, many digressions along the way.

NOTEBOOK: The Piazza Maggiore was full for Rosita—almost as many people were there as for Enamorada on Saturday night.
DAVE KEHR: Well, Enamorada’s crowd is what happens when a celebrity like Marty Scorsese shows up. It’s a very good movie; we just ran it [at MoMA] and did an Emilio Fernández series of ten or fifteen films. He’s a substantial filmmaker who falls apart around 1953 for reasons nobody can figure out—I mean, the Mexican cinema is falling apart. The rest is silence from him. Twenty more movies that have no personal feeling at all. 
NOTEBOOK: I don’t know if I associate anybody more closely with their national cinema as I do Fernández and Mexico. It’s as if the whole country’s movies flow through him, at least to some extent.
KEHR: Yeah, he had tremendous state support. This was at a time when the Mexican government was really making this cultural push with the Muralists and Pedro Páramo—that was their ‘ambassador’ to the world, and he was very carefully promoted as part of that. He was encouraged by the government but then the government changes in 1948, becoming... ‘more liberal’ is always relative in Mexico. But fervent nationalism is out and he doesn’t quite recover. Makes a couple of interesting cabaret films, one of which is well worth seeing, Victims of Sin. It’s crazy but there’s that beautiful [Gabriel] Figueroa night-time neon stuff—it’s gorgeous to look at. But then it all just fades away. The Roberto Gavaldón film yesterday, did you happen to see that?
NOTEBOOK: Rosauro Castro?
KEHR: It’s almost a direct attack on Fernández, with Pedro Armendáriz playing one of these noble peasants who has risen to be the dictator of his province. He’s gone bad, this macho guy who ends up shooting his own son. You can just feel him saying that we need to distance ourselves from these sentimental peasant archetypes. Very interesting.
NOTEBOOK: Back to Rosita... I understand you’ve been working on this for a couple of years.
KEHR: Longer than that, actually. Me for about four years. But the Museum of Modern Art itself acquired that print in 1970 from Gosfilmofond. It was the only known copy, since Mary [Pickford] had let her own disintegrate and never renewed the copyright.
NOTEBOOK: Because she was unhappy with it?
KEHR: Well, that’s another story. It’s not entirely clear why she turned against it. I guess MoMA’s intention was to show it as part of a Mary Pickford program, and Mary’s business manager came down very firmly and said, “Do not show this movie.” Not that she really had too much control over it, since she hadn’t renewed the copyright. They just decided that they didn’t want to offend Mary Pickford and so they didn’t. A few copies were made and given to the Cinémathèque française, Belgium, a couple other places. We think ours is a Soviet bootleg from a German print, because the Russian intertitles follow the German censorship cards almost word for word. And it was just in awful condition to begin with, very dupey, and horribly damaged—these big gouges all the way through it. I did a little thing on YouTube, some before and after comparisons of the restoration, if you want to see what a good job the digital restoration people did on this. They really brought it back from the dead. There were no definitive intertitles; we had lots of clues, like the Swedish intertitles, the German intertitles.
NOTEBOOK: There’s a nice long source list at the end of the video.
KEHR: Oh yeah, you get it all in there! What I had to do was sit down with a big spreadsheet and try to recreate them based on what we knew to be factual and then to fill in the blanks with plausible suggestions. It was very tricky. Hopefully it doesn’t read that way. But there are—clearly identified, of course—subtitles that I wrote. We didn’t have the first verse of Rosita’s song, for example. Verse two was enough to get the meter and the rhyme scheme, and we basically just had to invent the rest of it. There was no other source. Of course, it we find one, we can swap it back in. But that was one of the many challenges of this restoration. The only script we had was an early draft that was set in a different city, had none of the song lyrics in it, lots of little changes. The wonderful performance by Mathilde Comont as the mother—all of that business was assigned to the father in the screenplay. Clearly Lubitsch loved that actress and gave her all the business. Anyway, so we were patching it all together with the new intertitles—we had to recreate everything from the one reel that Mary had saved, where she’s dancing around the fruit bowl. It’s a great scene and you can see why she wanted to save that. Ironically that had a lot of nitrate decomposition, but it was the best visual material we had. We were then trying to match that with this old dupey Soviet print we had. At this point, I think it’s pretty damn close and mostly if you don’t tell people they don’t notice that there’s a pretty significant difference in the source material. So, we had the style of the intertitles from that which we recreated with our artists. We did a lot of work to get it exactly right.
NOTEBOOK: If I can ask a stupid question—since I have no idea—how much of the text for the intertitles appears in the original scripts you were working from? What does a silent film screenplay even look like?
KEHR: Really not that much different from a talkie script. Scenes are always numbered, annotated interior, exterior, et cetera. Writing titles was kind of an artform in itself in those days. Many of those comedy title card writers like ‘Beanie’ Walker who wrote a lot of the Hal Roach comedies a little later were very highly paid, but this was a whole different dimension of the comedy. They would be there to write some verbal humor to go with the other physical stuff. Just when they intervened in the two-reelers, it’s hard to say. I mean, everybody worked differently. [Leo] McCarey obviously improvised like crazy. Then H.M. ‘Beanie’ Walker would come in and put a few zingers in the intertitles and I’m sure it varied with every director. Which is the nice thing about silent movies. You had that freedom to improvise as long as you brought it in on budget.
NOTEBOOK: Did you glean, in researching the restoration, anything new and particular about Lubitsch’s working method on Rosita?
KEHR: Well, more by inference, I think. This is an important transitional film. This is where he discovers American technology. He’d been emulating it in Germany. He’s just starting to learn how to do continuity matches, inserts, backlighting. Really the discovery of studio lighting makes a huge difference to him. Suddenly, there’s depth and the range of those images is really gorgeous—in the way he gets these figures to stand out against the background. I mean, it’s stuff he really wasn’t able to do in Germany. The previous films are spatially incoherent and suddenly here the space is well-articulated, very well-integrated. He’s working with William Cameron Menzies, probably the most famous art director ever. You can see in a few of the shots—Menzies really loved those high-ceiling effects, lots of verticality. It’s one of the rare times that Lubitsch allowed the art designer to determine camera placement, although he certainly asserts himself in other areas. He’s moving towards the mature Lubitsch style, from the German historical films. He’s done the farce comedies and the more-or-less straight historical films. At this point, he’s seen DeMille, he’s seen Mauritz Stiller. He’s starting to understand what this kind of sophisticated comedy that he wants to move towards looks like. And it’s not quite there yet—it still has elements of the historical films. But the treatment of the king and queen is full-blown mature Lubitsch. Rosita has just a magnificent performance by Irene Rich, who Lubitsch clearly loved. He designed Lady Windemere’s Fan entirely around her two years later. But there’s no real written record of him saying anything other than ‘Oh, Hollywood has wonderful technical facilities!’ or ‘It’s such a pleasure and wonder to work here. I’m so happy! La, la, la.’ But you can really feel an evolution of his style there and by The Marriage Circle, his next film, it’s 90% there and then by Lady Windemere, it’s 100% there. He’s found it.
NOTEBOOK: And you said the project was going for a while before you stepped in?
KEHR: Well, no. They kind of just threw it in a closet and forgot about it. There were no intertitles. There was no way to improve that image quality. And when I started working at MoMA a few years ago, I identified a lot of things I wanted to work on, this being prime among them. We were able to get some key support from the Louis B. Meyer Foundation, and then the Film Foundation came in a later with some more money. We went through three generations of software—it just kept evolving while we were working on Rosita. To their infinite credit, the funders stood by and said, ‘If you can do it better, do it better and we’ll spend the money.’ And eventually it came out, as you see, state of the art and maybe even a bit beyond that. All the heavy lifting was done by a fella named Sean Coughlin who has a company called ImagePro out in Los Angeles. He was just brilliant. We couldn’t believe the kind of results we were getting back from him. 
We finished another one. Well, not quite finished—we’re doing the color grading now. It’s Lubitsch’s Forbidden Paradise, which is a 1924 film, the only American film starring Pola Negri. It was remade as A Royal Scandal with Tallulah Bankhead in 1945, which you may have seen. Lubitsch planned it, but Preminger ended up directing it because Lubitsch was ill. Lubitsch’s silent version is much better. It’s a film that was only thought to survive in an incomplete version of about 35 minutes. We had two Czech prints in our archive and for some reason, nobody had really gotten around to comparing them side by side to see what was there. And as it turns out, we’ve got 90% of the movie. It’s now 70 minutes, with one important scene that’s just totally missing that we’ll have to cover with stills or intertitles. The photographic quality is much, much better than Rosita, and it’s a couple of years down the line, so it’s a more mature, characteristic Lubitsch film. I think we’ll premiere that in Pordenone and then tour that around the usual places. This lady in the white jacket [sitting on a nearby table] is Gillian Anderson, the musicologist who did the research on the score. She’s done a lot of work with MoMA over the years, mainly on Griffith, and she’s really one of the experts in the field. She found the cue sheet for Rosita at the Library of Congress and then reconstructed the score based on the music cues. She’s conducted it in Venice and here in Bologna and in New York a few weeks ago. We just showed it in San Francisco in a down-mixed score for an orchestra with only five pieces. Eventually, we hope to put Gillian’s score on the DCP, which we recorded in Venice. So, we’ll also have that available for people who want to use that and of course if somebody wants to put any kind of music on it is pretty much fine with me. She’s also found a Forbidden Paradise score so we’re going to have that as well.
NOTEBOOK: I’m curious about the daily work on something like the restoration of Rosita. What does your schedule look like?
KEHR: Well, you’re never just working on one thing. Something like this had so many different stages. You’re working very closely with our chief preservation officer, who’s the real technical person, Peter Williamson. One of the great men in the field and who doesn’t get nearly as much credit as he deserves, since he’s very modest and never comes to things like this. Peter would send the stuff out to be scanned, using different vendors for that to see what kind of results we got back. We’d review them, figure out the best direction to take these in. There’s a lot of back-and-forth until you find the exact grading you want. Reconstructing the intertitles, selecting the tints. At the same time, every day I’m working on programming for the museum, various writing projects. It’s a very interesting life, it’s not monotonous. You’re certainly covering a lot of fronts.
NOTEBOOK: Though you’ve been at MoMA for a few years now, I still find it interesting that you shifted seamlessly from this cinephile-critic role, in which you always seemed to be taking stock of the bigger picture, compiling evidence and detail bit-by-bit—not to say that you don’t still do that privately, of course—to devoting yourself to these big projects, soaking in every aspect of this one film.
KEHR: I was just incredibly lucky to end up in this position, really with no formal background in this kind of work at all. What can I tell you? The kind of criticism I was doing is out of fashion and it was getting harder and harder to make a decent living. When this came along it was just... salvation. I’m a very, very lucky person. It turned out that I had some skills I acquired over the years that could carry over into a different line of work, and people wanted to keep me around and pay me to do this stuff. Lot of luck involved, I’ll tell you that much.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve been attending Il Cinema Ritrovato for five years now, is that right?
KEHR: Hmm... I wonder. Must be six or seven years. Peter von Bagh invited me to curate a Raoul Walsh series some years ago. Walsh, Dwan. What else did I do for them? McCarey. He wanted me to do Wellman but I’m not a big Wellman fan, so I found a friend of mine who was and helped that year but didn’t really take a credit. Then two years of Universal films and now William Fox.
NOTEBOOK: You’re a mainstay now.
KEHR: Fine by me! I’m always glad when they ask me back. They are already settled on a second year of Fox. There’s lots to choose from—it’s a really large body of work that’s hardly been seen at all. I really wanted to start off this year by highlighting some of the recent work we’ve done, along with UCLA which also received a fair number of those Fox prints [these were rescued from the studio’s lawyers, who intended them destroyed, by Alex Gordon and MoMA’s Eileen Bowser -ed]. It just seemed like a good way to organize it. There were a certain number of major auteur films, there were... I mean, a lot of Fox was dedicated to mining the German vein after F.W. Murnau made such an impact there with Sunrise. Two very interesting films by German directors that they brought over—well, they didn’t bring [William] Dieterle over but he did his most Germanic film at Fox. He actual signs his two films there ‘Wilhelm Dieterle’ which he does not sign anywhere else after he leaves Germany. And Spencer Tracy is one of the few major stars that Fox discovered, and the work he’s doing there is really so innovative. It’s this early method acting, really interior, no histrionics at all. Really minimal in approach, you just see him thinking all the time. It’s totally different from Warner Baxter, one of the other Fox stars. He never caught on at Fox. They didn’t really know what to do with him, and eventually he goes to MGM, where they turn him into a character actor, which is a waste. But there are half a dozen films at Fox where Tracy is just so modern, two decades ahead of everybody else. Both films in the series—Now I’ll Tell and The Mad Game—are sympathetic gangster films, which he kind of specialised in. These are pretty brutal characters, responsible for all kinds of deaths and unhappiness. He doesn’t play them that way. There’s no mustache twirling, no sense of psychosis, as Cagney would give it. They are just very complicated people who can’t always resist their destructive impulses. Very interesting stuff. Those are not auteur films, not movies by major directors. And indeed, are not very well-made, either of them. He’s just phenomenal in them, I think.
NOTEBOOK: I just saw Erik Charell’s Caravan.
KEHR: Ha! What did you make of that?
NOTEBOOK: It’s crazy...
KEHR: ...All those super long takes...
NOTEBOOK: I’ve been watching these Mizoguchi films from the forties. Just saw Flame of My Love. And there are similarities, as if the camera is creating new worlds, opening up these dense landscapes as it moves through space. But in Mizoguchi—because he’s Mizoguchi—it’s all perfectly timed. So, the camera moves, a wall falls down, somebody tumbles out from behind it, another appears in the foreground, whatever—it’s perfect. In Caravan, it’s so not that. I love it. People out of focus, blocking the camera. Lots of disorganized movement. The camera pulls out and suddenly you realize that it’s all taking place in this enormous, cavernous room full of extraneous action.
KEHR: Yeah, yeah. It’s really something. Total disaster when it came out. Just a major, major money loser. Charell sits out the rest of the decade in Hollywood. Thank goodness, because if he had gone back to Germany he would not have survived. And he pretty much brought over his entire German crew—his composer, his screenwriter, his set designer, art director. They all stayed in America and their lives were saved as a result of that. One happy consequence of the film’s production, I guess.
NOTEBOOK: Which totally fits in with the idea of this itinerant caravan...
KEHR: Yeah, my reading of the film is that it is a metaphor for the position of Jews and minorities in Germany at that point. Kind of kept around for entertainment and jollying people along, and as soon as they are not useful anymore we’re going to get rid of them. There’s that magnificent ending, which I think is Lubitsch-level. In any other American film of that period, [Charles] Boyer’s character would have achieved at least happiness and probably riches as well, and maybe would have maintained status as prince of the land. And in this one, there’s just no question of that. This guy has been there, he’s seen that. These things just do not happen. You leave, you go back with your own people. And then when it turns out he’s stolen her jewelled necklace... that’s very strong stuff.
Caravan
NOTEBOOK: I love the way that affections are so transactional. These deep feelings are all, it would seem, so fleeting.
KEHR: It’s quite cynical. Have you seen Der Kongreß tanzt [The Congress Dances]? That’s his big German musical. It’s probably the most famous German musical for Germans. You should check that out. It’s what got him this gig. A huge hit worldwide—there was a French version, an English version. It’s a really good movie. Again, bittersweet and about an affair between a commoner and a prince that ends with the prince just walking out on her and, well, that’s it. The sense of sudden deflation is just remarkable. It’s not on the same scale as Caravan but it has an awful lot of extreme long takes. Charell had been an assistant to Max Reinhart and a lot of the big crowd staging stuff—that is almost too much in Caravan at times, overwhelming the movie to some extent—that’s what they were doing on those gigantic stages in Berlin, these huge crowd sequences with people swooping back and forth. You can feel a lot of that experience in this movie. He was basically a theatre director. Stays in Hollywood, has a couple of credits on a few odd MGM musicals. Wrote this very sentimental song called ‘Oh Mein Papa,’ with some Yiddish lyrics, that became a huge hit in America, recorded by a bunch of big bands in the forties. I think that is what he was able to live on until he went back to Germany. He made three or four more films in West Germany, which are not interesting. Did a lot of theatre work again. In fact, there’s an Erik Charell museum in Berlin, and they have a nice web presence if you want to learn more about Erik. Lots of information on him up there.
NOTEBOOK: When did he die?
KEHR: I can’t remember for sure. I think in the sixties. I would definitely check that. [July, 1974 -ed] His last films are all in the fifties. He has big stage hits all the way through. He did a few things on Broadway in the thirties and at least one of them was a big hit—a play called The White Horse Inn, which was a kind of Bavarian farce that had miraculously translated to Broadway, and that was a big success. No more films in America. And the last films in Germany are disappointing.
NOTEBOOK: I’m curious how much of your time is spent researching these extra-cinematic histories that bubble up around the movies.
KEHR: As much as I can! Once you dive into these things, you just want to learn all there is to know about them. Some of these movies are real UFOs—where do they come from? Who made these?
NOTEBOOK: Caravan particularly. That’s basically what I heard people saying as they left the Cinema Jolly this morning.
KEHR: [Laughs] It’s the only one like it, I think. There weren’t any more.
NOTEBOOK: You said that Fox was actively cultivating this German...influence?
KEHR: Yeah, it’s hard to find the actual documentation but they were hiring a number of people from Germany. Another director named Paul Martin came over and did a couple of not very interesting films for Fox. We’ve got them, but I don’t think we’ll be working on them any time soon. He goes back to Germany and becomes Hitler’s favorite director, uncomfortably enough.
NOTEBOOK: To switch gears a little, I think the make-up of Il Cinema Ritrovato has changed slightly in recent years.
KEHR: I think after Peter died there were some mutations. It’s certainly getting bigger—they have close to 500 movies this year. And there are a lot of repeat screenings, a lot more people here. The challenge for any non-profit organization is to get bigger without losing your identity. They are certainly very aware of that. Holding onto the old tradition of cinephile hangout. I just hope celebrities don’t start turning up, press conferences, red carpet—that would not be good. I would not be happy with that. These are good people, these are serious people. This year, they have brought in three co-directors to work with Gian-Luca Farinelli [Mariann Lewinsky, Ehsan Khoshbakht, Cecilia Cenciarelli -ed]—I’m sure they can explain the philosophy much better than I can, since I’m really just an outsider. It’s always tricky. You don’t want to turn into Telluride or something like that. At the same time, you want to attract sponsors, more international participation.
NOTEBOOK: What are your movie-watching habits these days?
KEHR: [Laughs] That’s changed a lot! I seldom see new movies anymore.
NOTEBOOK: That’s probably a good thing.
KEHR: Yeah, I was withdrawing from that even when I was working as a critic. Going from seeing ten new movies a week when I was a really active critic for daily newspapers and things like that, to the last few years, where if I see one new movie a month it’s a surprise. Part of that is getting older and feeling alienated from films these days—they are really not for me. And I’m happy to let younger, smarter, livelier people cover that world. I can burrow deeper into things that interest me. I spend most of my life living somewhere between 1925 and 1949. [Laughs] I don’t claim that as being any kind of exceptionally wonderful period, but it is just what interests me. It’s the period where mise en scène was dominant, when there was that wonderful classical style of spatial continuity, editing. In spite of everything, it continues to be what intrigues me after all these years.

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