English Lord Arthur Cavershoot (Goetz) is a passionate Napoleon scholar who badly neglects his wife Josephine (von Martens) for his obsession with the French emperor. When the cranky historian travels to a Napoleon conference in Paris, his smart spouse secretly follows him. Unnoticed by her, the city of love threatens to spark a romance between Arthur and chorus girl Pünktchen (von Möllendorff). Back in his hotel after a night of wild partying, the historian is visited by his research object and idol Napoleon in person. Meanwhile Josephine, who has returned to their castle, hears of her husband’s forays into Parisian nightlife, supposedly in the company of an illegitimate daughter hitherto unknown to Josephine. Seeing through her husband, she sends a telegram ordering him and the ‘daughter’ back to England. After several days of turbulent plotting and scheming, Lord and Lady Cavershoot are happily reunited and decide to adopt Pünktchen whom they have both taken to their hearts.
Screenwriter, director and actor Curt Goetz (1888–1960) worked for stage and screen in Germany (though he was a Swiss citizen). He was known for his sophisticated witty dialogue and a sometimes frivolously biting, yet ultimately affectionate look at human frailties. It is also on this level that this film, his second work as a film director, is most convincing. What makes the relatively unknown film truly extraordinary compared to other works produced in the same historical context – Nazi Germany – is its capacity to elicit some hearty laughs even from today’s audience.
The snappy comedy often emphasises situational humour and offbeat slapstick, and operates with self-reflexive gags and song and dance numbers. Modelled after the American ‘screwball comedies’ of the time, the movie offers remarkable speed and pointed dialogue, sometimes culminating in lewd jokes.
The world of the film is populated by characters who are strangely obsessed with history. Even Napoleon himself (also played by Curt Goetz) asks Lord Cavershoot in the film’s nightmarish key sequence whether the rumour about his wife Josephine’s infidelity is ‘historical’. The question ‘Is this historical?’ becomes a kind of running joke through the course of the film. Goetz thus devises absurd situations as ironic comments on a popular stance of the time, an attitude that ascribed special significance to the past, excessively referring to and relying on ‘History’.
Similarly, Napoleon reflects and ridicules academic preoccupation with the past and its theoretical background of German Historicism. In their attempt to understand great historical figures, the participants of the Napoleon conference take part in a futile quest for objective knowledge based on a male-dominated, affirmative notion of national historiography.
Furthermore, the conspicuous use of certain cinematic techniques points to the typical conventions of historical films. With the marked display of historical paintings and music, opulent sets and costumes, and the story’s concern with popular and often anecdotal (half) knowledge about history, Napoleon satirically exposes the cinematic strategies common to historical dramas.
There is only one convention of the historical film that is not flaunted in an equally open and exaggerated manner:the tendency of historical films to indirectly reference the period of their production and treat contemporary issues rather than the historical events they purport to be concerned with (Sorlin 1980). The reason why Goetz’s film will not self-reflexively expose – and thereby deride – this narrative principle is quite simple: Curt Goetz himself makes full use of this method. The grim dream sequence is revealing. Napoleon’s lofty demeanour, his barking diction and rolling R, the feverish look in his eyes and his inferiority complex with women suggest that the film’s subject is no longer the historical French emperor, but rather a contemporary German ruler: Hitler. The Napoleonic apparition is essentially a parody of Hitler and thus stands asa unique case in pre-1945 German cinema. It is this kind of explicit reference to the film’s historical context and to ‘German’ themes that constitutes the film’s socio-critical potential.
Goetz’s mockery of the period’s obsession with history, his filmic deconstruction of authority figures and pathos, and his allusions to the regime’s circus-like spectacles were carefully calculated blows at National Socialism. In other words, Curt Goetz went quite far. Nevertheless, the movie, produced by the Nazi-controlled Tobis Filmkunst and officially labelled ‘artistically valuable,’ earned positive reviews by Germany’s (forcibly) unanimous press. The critical work was thus integrated into the totalitarian culture industry. But how was this possible? First, Goetz’s witty, bold, but ultimately apolitical humorous stings were mostly aimed at the universally human, and lacked the unforgiving urgency shown by other (exiled) critics of the Nazi regime. And second, the German Führer state, having recognized the propagandistic value of entertainment, was in need of gifted film directors, especially in the field of comedy. Curt Goetz, however, couldn’t picture his future under the Nazis – only two and half months after the opening of Napoleon he and his wife Valerie von Martens left Germany for the US where they tried to establish themselves in Hollywood.