This is a strange piece: a tale of late-medieval English history, made at a German studio, entirely produced and acted by Germans (plus one Swiss and one Norwegian). While we in the UK are quite used to Hollywood rewriting our history for us (Braveheart etc.) we don't expect it so much from our fellow Europeans. But back in the early 1920s the UFA studio in Berlin really was the Hollywood of Europe, and for a few years they had the cinematic prowess to tell whatever stories they liked.
The director here is Ernst Lubitsch, who later became well-known in the US for his sophisticated comedies, and back then he was primarily a comedy director too. Anna Boleyn sees him turning his many comical tricks to more dramatic effect. A favourite comedy technique of his was the pull-back-and-reveal, as used for example in the opening shot of The Oyster Princess (1919) to show the bloated Oyster King surrounded by his lackeys. That shot is duplicated here with the introduction to Henry VIII, the look slightly more realistic but just as revelatory of the character. And although Lubitsch's pictures are in a very different category to those of his fellow UFA luminaries Fritz Lang and FW Murnau, he shares with those directors a fascination with décor and architecture. He constantly composes shots in depth, 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. This was a common way of emphasising a large space before the days of widescreen, but it also gives the whole thing a sense of dread and inevitability, as characters advance upon us from the distance or spy on each other into a room beyond.
Lubitsch also reveals himself to be a master of pacing within a sequence. For example after a handful of busy shots at the spring festival the scene, everything becomes slow, simple and a shade darker as Anna encounters Norris on the outskirts of the merrymaking. Throughout the picture the director encourages steady, measured performances, making some scenes move at a glacial pace but endowing them with atmosphere and fascinating detail, such as the eerie depiction of Anna and Henry's wedding night. Playing the king, the talented Emil Jannings is uncharacteristically restrained, giving us a menacing, moody king very different to Charles Laughton's flamboyant 1933 portrayal. Henny Porten is not quite as good in the title role, her performance consisting mostly of looking extremely disturbed. However she is able to make a good account of herself in the final few minutes, when it really matters. An honourable mention must also go to Paul Biensfeldt as the jester, who makes the most of his close-ups and gives us a sincere and dignified portrayal of this deceptively simple character.
Anna Boleyn is all in all a rather stunning feature, and actually somewhat better than most of the historical dramas coming out of Hollywood at the time. It seems that, during this crucial period when the full-length motion picture was beginning to grow up and things like screen acting and set design were becoming serious professions, the Germans had the edge with their strong theatrical, operatic and artistic traditions, upon which their cinematic industry was built. Lubitsch, Jannings, and almost every other member of the crew and cast had a background on the stage, as oppose to the technicians and entrepreneurs who were running Hollywood. In Germany they knew very well how to tell stories visually, how to merge production design and performance into a complete form of expression, and they had a large pool of people with the necessary experience. The supremacy of UFA would continue until the Americans gained the technological edge in the late 20s (not to mention poaching much of Germany's creative talent), but during this short period it was the most competent movie-making factory in the world. Anna Boleyn is not even the finest output of its time and place, and yet is still made with that powerful blend of storytelling knowledge and cinematic inventiveness, and is a drama of considerable stature and elegance.