Blog Directory CineVerse: Fighting Hitler with humor

Fighting Hitler with humor

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Last week, our CineVerse group examined Ernst Lubitsch’s now 80-year-old comedy/drama To Be or Not To Be, starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. It’s a film that conjures up a range of thoughts and opinions and not a small amount of controversy considering its comical approach to depicting Nazis. Here’s a summary of our talking points (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here; to listen to the current episode of the Cineversary podcast which spotlights this movie, click here).

Why is this film worth celebrating 80 years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • To be or Not to Be matters because it was bold, groundbreaking, and divisive for its day. This was a movie that wasn’t afraid to tackle a very sensitive subject for 1942: Nazi aggression and the subjugation of Poland.
    • It didn’t shy away from infusing humor into a very dark and timely topic, and it paid the price of that risk-taking by being accused at the time by film critics, Hollywood elites, and others of being offensive, tone-deaf, and in bad taste.
    • Here was a film that dared to depict the Nazis as humanly flawed and comically fallible instead of being inhuman representations of evil incarnate; the bad guys are still vile and reprehensible, but they were also mere mortals capable of fatal ineptitude who could be made to look like clowns.
    • Lubitsch said: “It seemed to me that the only way for people to hear about the miseries of Poland was to make a comedy. Audiences would feel sympathy and admiration for people who could still laugh in the face of their tragedy.”
  • It’s worth celebrating because the comedy is graced that ever-indefinable Lubitsch touch, which meant that the jokes are layered, the laughs are not evoked from low-hanging fruit like slapstick or sight gags, and the humor was often decidedly adult, with thinly-veiled metaphors and double entendres used. As on Jack Benny’s immensely popular radio program, the film also gets a lot of mileage out of running gags, like the repetition of “Heil Hitler,” “So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt, eh,” and Joseph Tura’s delivery of “To Be or Not to Be.”
    • Criterion Collection essayist Geoffrey O'Brien wrote: “Almost no line of dialogue is without a barbed secondary implication; jokes comment knowingly on the jokes that preceded them, adding elements of ironic awareness too discreetly and rapidly for a single viewing to suffice.”
    • As David Kalat said best in his commentary on the DVD/Blu-ray: “The good guys win not because they’re stronger or have better weapons. The good guys win because they have the jokes.”
  • It has stood the test of time thanks to its hybrid design: It works as both a thriller and a comedy, fulfilling ably in both genres. When it aims to tickle the funnybone, it hits a bullseye with most of its jokes and gags. When it shifts into wartime espionage mode, the danger feels real and the knot is pulled tight.
    • Lubitsch also works magic hereby simplifying what could be an otherwise convoluted plot and paring away logic and plausibility for narrative efficiency. For instance, many questions are left unanswered, such as:
      • How and why does Maria become a central figure in the Resistance and how does Sobinski find her and end up in her home?
      • What’s the point of Maria leaving a fake suicide letter signed by Siletsky?
      • What happened to the duplicate copy of professor Siletsky’s papers? Did Maria burn them?
      • What happens to Greenburg? Does he also escape, or is he doomed to die?
    • Likewise, it’s improbable that Joseph would be able to speak perfect German to Ernhardt or be that calm and intrepid under pressure.

In what ways was To Be or Not to Be was influential on cinema, comedy, or popular culture?

  • To Be or Not to Be made a strong impression on Mel Brooks, who remade it in 1982 and also created the 1968 eyebrow-raising comedy The Producers, in which Hitler and his minions are mercilessly parodied. There was a 2008 Broadway play that adapted this story, too.
  • Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds pays homage to this movie, particularly in its third act depicting a plot against Hitler while he attends movie theater, and Paul Verhoeven’s 2006 war drama Black Book features a Jewish female character who becomes a spy for the resistance during World War II, likely taking a cue from Maria in To Be Or Not To Be.
  • Perhaps modern films like Life Is Beautiful, The Dictator, and Jo Rabbit wouldn’t exist without a feature like To Be Or Not To Be helping to pave the way for politically incorrect comedy.
  • On a bittersweet note, the posthumous death by plane crash of Carol Lombard just prior to the theatrical release of this film probably helped elevate her legacy and make fans appreciate her many talents, particularly in the comedy genre.
  • Ponder that Lubitsch’s film would have likely have been inspired to some extent by Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent released two years earlier, which features a similar professor character who turns out to be a villain, as well as by Fritz Lang’s Night Train to Munich (1940), and Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, which was the first feature-length Hollywood film to daringly lampoon Hitler and the fascists.
    • Other motivating predecessors include the Three Stooges’ shorts You Nazty Spy! and I'll Never Heil Again, from 1940 and 1941, which make Nazis and fascists the butt of many jokes. And Lubitsch even riffs on one of his own earlier works, The Shop Around the Corner from 1940, in how he recreates many of those Budapest storefronts and the look of the pedestrians and shopkeepers there, who resemble the people who frequent the streets of downtown Warsaw.

How would this film have been daring, controversial, or envelope-pushing, especially considering its political subtext and the fact that World War II was well underway by the time of this picture’s release?

  • Even though the full facts about Hitler’s final solution and the government-enforced practice of genocide wasn’t widely known to the public at the time this movie was being made, the filmmakers were certainly aware of mass atrocities being committed by the Nazis, the horrible conditions of the Warsaw ghetto in Poland, and the unconscionable suffering that Germany was inflicting on the Polish people and throughout Europe. So the decision to pursue a comedy about Nazis and the invasion of Poland would have been upsetting to many.
    • Remember, too, that the United States had not yet entered into war with Germany or the Axis powers at the time of the film’s production and release. And there was no guarantee that yuks about concentration camps, mass murder, and Hitler walking among a dumbfounded throng of Jewish Poles would resonate among viewers.
    • Deep Focus Review blogger Brian Eggert wrote: “Imagine if a comedy about al-Qaeda terrorists attacking the World Trade Center had gone into production in the summer of 2001 and been released shortly after 9/11. That would be the modern-day equivalent of Lubitsch shooting To Be or Not to Be in Hollywood in late 1941 for a premiere of March 6, 1942.”
  • To Be or Not to Be had the guts to make Nazis fallible and flawed, to strip them of their “unstoppable machine”-like qualities and expose them for the imperfect humans they truly were—a humanizing approach that may have angered some people.
    • Kalat, in his DVD commentary, made the following observation: “Lubitsch finds a way to defeat the Nazis by humanizing them. Understanding them is the only way to defeat them…our heroes understand our foes well enough to infiltrate and impersonate them.”
    • Brian Eggert further posited that: “Lubitsch emphasizes a profound truth indeed—that Nazis were not the superhuman monsters that so many cinematic representations made them out to be. Rather, they were preposterously cruel and deluded human beings, and whoever chose to follow ridiculous figures such as Hitler were equally incompetent. Lubitsch also demonstrated how vulnerable the Nazis could be, an important message to incite U.S. involvement in World War II… Lubitsch’s Nazis are weak-minded and buffoonish people, ever frightened of their overseer, and prone to interrupting conversational lulls with an enthusiastic-if-discomfited ‘Heil Hitler!’…By portraying them as incompetent, Lubitsch strikes a much more severe blow to the Nazi philosophy.”
    • Remember the words of Professor Siletsky: “We're not monsters...Tell me, do I look like a monster?...We're just like other people. We love to sing, we love to dance, we admire beautiful women. We're human.”
    • Recall, as well, the ample blood that soils Siletsky’s clothes when he is shot; it was rare to see blood or gore in a 1940s movie. This image makes us think of Greenburg’s recitation of Shylock from the Merchant of Venice: “If you prick us do we not bleed?” That saying is as true for the enemies as it is for the heroes.
  • This picture is a mashup blend that offers both laughs and thrills, comedy and tragedy, silliness and seriousness, satire and spy story, thespian farce and war movie. The narrative can shift suddenly in tone, disorienting viewers not used to this kind of alternation. It’s far from the funniest movie you’ve ever seen, and it is certainly not the most gripping study in suspense. But it does balance between light and dark tonalities quite deftly and entertainingly. Still, these abrupt tonal transitions won’t delight everyone.
    • In his commentary, Kalat suggests: “The movie isn’t reliable in signposting when it’s changing modes…The audience is consistently manipulated into laughing about things that are not funny and then made to feel self-conscious for having done so.”
  • There are many hints of sex, infidelity, and cuckolding, and the filmmakers consistently use comedic innuendo, double entendres, and farcical bedroom situations, as one would likely expect of a Lubitsch sophisticated adult comedy. There is also a risqué line by professor Siletsky about Maria being “a cheap little…” and we are left to fill in that blank, which of course means "whore." That’s quite the shocking line for 1942, even if it pulls its punch. Ponder, too, how Lubitsch equates Germany’s invasion of Poland with the infiltration of Joseph’s bed by Sobinski.
  • The film is replete with famous quotes that would upset many an applecart, lines like: “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland,” “We do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping,” “So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt, eh?”, “You might not believe it, but I can drop 3 tons of dynamite into minutes,” and “If we should ever have a baby, I’m not sure I’d be the mother” followed by “I’m satisfied to be the father.”
  • Maria doesn’t pay a price at the conclusion for her flirting or potential infidelities, and she and the pilot remain sympathetic figures despite their philandering. Recall that the last scene suggests that Sobinski isn’t the only man she has a dalliance with; a new unidentified man in uniform gets up to presumably rendezvous with her during Joseph’s latest delivery of Hamlet’s soliloquy.
  • It’s also interesting that the character we loathe the most is professor Siletsky, not necessarily Col. Ehrhardt or Capt. Schultz. Perhaps that’s because Siletsky never makes us laugh, whereas Ehrhardt and Schultz are the butts of many jokes.

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in To Be or Not To Be?

  • Playacting, deception, and the power of theatrical performance. This is a farcical story about mediocre actors who somehow manage to fool their most hostile crowd: Nazis bent on their destruction. Here, artifice requires artistry.
    • Ed Gonzales, a reviewer for Slant Magazine, wrote: “To Be or Not to Be is largely about the interplay between art and reality and it uses modes of performance to challenge the stiffness and authority of a preposterous political regime…Just as Shakespeare gave Hamlet’s contemplation of suicide a political context, Lubitsch similarly offers the actors in his film an existential challenge: Frustrated by their inability to act (shortly before the Nazis invade Warsaw, their anti-Hitler play Gestapo is shut down), the actors take arms against a sea of troubles in order to live the life of the theater vicariously through their mockery of the Nazi movement that seeks to destroy them. Many of the film’s pleasures, then, derive from watching these characters successfully use the tools of the stage (improvisation, sense memory, prosthetics) to successfully subvert the Nazis.”
  • “To be or not to be,” or the juxtaposition of truth versus lies, of authenticity versus fabrication. Fascinatingly, in example after example, the movie gives us facsimiles of the truth, such as the thespians costumed as Nazis, before showing the real things.
    • Brian Eggert further wrote: “By pairing stage actors against Nazis who play the part of monsters, and then suggesting these actors must behave in farcical ways to pass as Nazis and survive, Lubitsch plays with notions of reality and theater, and by the end of his film resolves that the Nazis too are simply actors on a stage. This interplay of reality and theatricality aligns his film’s absurdist Nazi behavior with real life, whereas the Polski troupe’s stage performances are knowingly artificial; still, they’re both gross exaggerations and silly for the viewer, which thereupon delivers a staggeringly refined insult to Nazis. By implying Nazis are just actors on the world stage, Lubitsch discredits their most effective and intimidating weapon, their theatricality, and strikes a staggering blow through the art of cinema.”
  • Don’t underestimate the creativity and cunning of the underdog or the loser, who can overcome the odds with pluck and providence.
  • Exposing frauds for who they really are. The worst phonies—Siletsky and Ernhardt—are revealed as being true charlatans due to their incompetence. But the clever frauds, Joseph and his fellow actors, deceive relatively effectively, although they come close to ruin on several occasions.
  • "If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Greenburg recites this famous Shylock speech from The Merchant of Venice several times in the film, reminding viewers of the fact that real flesh-and-blood human beings – particularly Jews like Greenberg – were suffering at the hands of the Germans. Greenburg is a surrogate here for Lubitsch the director, trying to impress upon audiences in 1942 that the Nazis were treating Jews inhumanely. Greenburg is the film’s voice of conscience, forcing us to reckon with the unfair plight of the Jewish people, the extent of their suffering, and the abominable racist and discriminatory ideology that the Nazis used to justify treating Jews as subhuman.

What is To Be or Not To Be’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • One of its greatest gifts is its ability to so thoroughly satisfy as both a comedy and a suspenseful war film. It takes considerable talent to be able to alternate mood, manner, and method throughout a picture like To Be or Not to Be without completely alienating viewers who most value laughs or without abandoning those who like their espionage and intrigue served savory and warm.
  • Another is the screenplay, by Lubitsch and Edwin Justus Mayer—a story that functions like a finely crafted timepiece. As with an antique watch, which is comprised of a complex system of springs, rotors, gaskets, escapements, balance wheels, and other interrelated intricate parts, To Be or Not to Be relies on precision craftsmanship and a delicate rhythm between what would seem like incompatible components.
    • Consider how meticulously structured this story is, in which the dramatic narrative is commented on so cleverly by the jokes, which have layers upon layers of meaning and resonance, creating a sophisticated style of comedy that doesn’t aim for cheap and simple laughs but instead is designed to make you think deeper as you chuckle along while never forgetting the underlying conflict: that Naziism is at war not only with nations but with humanity itself, and it will take cunning and ingenuity by even the least skilled and talented to help defeat this formidable foe.
  • And we can certainly credit the “Lubitsch touch” with helping to make To Be Or Not To Be so downright smart and entertaining as both a laugher and a knot-twister. – Film critic Richard Christiansen described the famous Lubitsch touch as embracing “a long list of virtues: sophistication, style, subtlety, wit, charm, elegance, suavity, polished nonchalance and audacious sexual nuance,” while Billy Wilder summed it up as “the elegant use of the Superjoke. You had a joke, and you felt satisfied, and then there was one more big joke on top of it. The joke you didn't expect.”
    • As evidenced in so many of his best works, like Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, Design for Living, and Trouble in Paradise, Lubitsch could marry many different sensibilities and hybridize varied genres and subgenres of cinema with relative ease thanks to his considerable gifts as a master teller of adult stories, his knack for showcasing the dynamism and distances between men and women, and his propensity for exploring the many facets of sexual politics. To Be or Not to Be is the ultimate testament to the man’s many talents.

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