Is It Okay to Laugh? Ernst Lubitsch and the Power of Humor in To Be or Not to Be

I live in the sunny state of Florida so it’s only natural that I should want to see a Nazi get punched in the face every once in a while. I don’t like bullies, and I definitely don’t like Nazi-types. They’re the worst kind of bullies I can imagine, the kind that want to wipe you and your friends and your family and any memory of any of you from the face of the Earth. I don’t like bullies to the extent that they may be the one sort of person that can trigger me to flame on. That behavior may be the thing I hate most in this life. I would rather spend a week going without sweets, caffeine, and weed, eating wilted salads smothered in ranch, waiting on hold with Comcast, and watching a different Steven Segal movie every day than suffer a bully – much less a Nazi – for a second.

I live in the sunny state of Florida where it seems obvious that many of my fellow Floridians are again falling under the ugly spell of authoritarianism, so I thought it timely to share the note-perfect way Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be dealt with this madness at the dawn of the Second World War. It is as much a joy and revelation today as it was when it was released in March, 1942 and that is no small feat.

Besides being bullies from Hell, another thing I don’t like about Nazis was they’re unrelenting seriousness and its accompanying poor excuses for humor. Sure, they looked fashionable in their fashy haircuts and Hugo Boss uniforms, practicing black magic and gobbling amphetamines, but always revealed themselves to surprisingly dull outside of that. Sure, they could make a good film once in a rare while like Münchhausen (1943), but that was because that film was written by Nobel Prize nominee Erich Kästner, who was expelled from the party-run writers’ guild, and whose books were regularly burned; otherwise, from mountain films to society dramas to Superior Race trailers at the theatres, Aryan cinema was eugenic claptrap full of blonde-haired Teutonic types stiffly posing amidst European scenery, often at sun-rise or -set to enhance the godlike nature of their presence. Yawn.

This colors my feelings about movies with Nazis in them. Generally, I find them overly heavy, full of the predictable pain and drama and painfully predictable and overly dramatic story beats. Making them out to be the powerful bad guys is too easy, too simplistic, and done far too often, but trying to humanize inhuman behavior is also problematic. These are not films I rewatch as many times the plots are wafer thin with zero character development. Watching mean people do mean stuff – even if they lose in the end – is mean viewing. I watch movies to avoid the harsh reality and sufferings of real life, not to add to it.

So how does cinema successfully engage with tragedy? And how to do it without being exploitive but still entertaining? Is it possible to leave a theatre uplifted by a film with Nazis? One way that’s been used successfully is to have a great script with a lot of heart, one that fleshes out the characters both good and bad, so that the audience is engaged and invested. Though the story is sad, we take comfort in the power of compassion, thrill to acts of bravery, and are reminded that the connections between us is where life is lived and honoring those who are gone is a part of living.

The story is still sad, though. Perhaps some see this as the only way to tell this part of history. There are countless movies that successfully meet this standard. For instance, I remember sitting in my car for 10-15 minutes after seeing Schindler’s List. Just sitting there. I was crushed by the experience. Even so (or even especially so), these films find it impossible to be anything but a dark and weighty telling of a great tragedy, so still not the sort of upliftng and casual fare audiences usually seek out after a hard week at work.

I know two things that are often true: that those who attack others’ cultures are jealous about how paltry theirs look in comparison, and that the crueler the bully, the thinner the skin. I also know if you point out the truth of the first one by employing humor and satire to effectively respond to the second, you have an audience-pleasing combination. What’s true in film is true in life: most bullies don’t have much of a sense of humor and hate being ridiculed but folks that don’t like bullies find it hilarious. That’s where the brilliance of Lubitsch’s use of humor makes it far different than these other films; however, though doing well at the box office, the film met a critical reception. Famously, there is a story told about Jack Benny’s dad at the premiere.

Per IMDb: When Jack Benny’s father went to see this movie, he was outraged at the sight of his son in a Nazi uniform in the first scene and even stormed out of the theater. Jack convinced his father that it was satire, and he agreed to sit through all of it. His father ended up loving the film so much he saw it forty-six times.

A little background: Ernst Lubitsch is a still-essential director, his body of work fresh and surprisingly stylish, clever, and progressive. Some of his films could be considered “woke” today. Unlike his friend and peer Charlie Chaplin who was English by birth and American by choice (and whose anti-Hitler film The Great Dictator had come out two years previously in 1940), Lubitsch was born into a family of Russian Jewish tailors who moved to Germany when he was young. In that country, he began by acting but achieved renown as a director of silent films before emigrating to the US ahead of that wave of European greats that feld the Nazi regime (Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Conrad Veidt, et al.). He had been successful in short films as the comedic lead but his greater success as a director allowed him to hone his style quickly with a large number of well-received films. Again, per IMDb:

“The year 1919 found Lubitsch directing seven films, the two standouts being his lavish Passion (1919) with two of his favorite actors–Negri (yet again) and Emil Jannings. His other standout was the witty parody of the American upper crust, The Oyster Princess (1919). This film was a perfect example of what became known as the Lubitsch style, or the “Lubitsch Touch”, as it became known–sophisticated humor combined with inspired staging that economically presented a visual synopsis of storyline, scenes and characters.”

After some promotional visits in 1919, he moved to Hollywood in 1923 per Mary Pickford’s invitation (her massive influence of the nascent American film industry is well documented cannot be neither overestimated or adressed in a concise manner here). Over the remainder of his career he produced a number of succesful films, some now considered classics like Ninotchka (with Greta Garbo), or The Shop Around the Corner (with Jimmy Stewart), or Heaven Can Wait (with Gene Tierney). It is certain that if he had not passed away of a heart attack by age 55, the list would be longer.

IMDb: At his funeral, two of his fellow directorial émigrés from Germany put his epitaph succinctly as they left. Billy Wilder noted, “No more Lubitsch.” William Wyler answered, “Worse than that – no more Lubitsch films.”

Of all his audience-pleasing work, To Be or Not to Be is considered by many to be his best. Always a director that was involved in the story from its beginning, he helped write the screenplay and it’s a lovely piece of work, full of Shakespeare’s words and plot devices: mistaken identities, missed appointments, treachery at the highest levels, and a well-crafted dialogue that would influence scriptwriters until now.

To quickly recap the plot: a Polish acting troupe are prevented from putting on a satire of Hitler by government censors and instead fall back on Hamlet. The lead actress (Carole Lombard) encourages an admirer (a young Polish fighter pilot played by Robert Stack) to come to her dressing room when her vain and competitive husband begins his soliloquy (thus the “To be or not…” title). Through a number of clever plot twists (think Coen Bros.) his simple act leads to entanglement with a well-planted Nazi spy who now has a list of a number of Polish patriots. Now the troupe finds itself in a position to defeat some Nazis and save some Poles and this is when the film really starts chugging along.

I think this story succeeds because Lubitsch is primarily a director interested in the positive and complicated effects of love and his enthusiasm for lovers as main characters coupled with his incredibly progressive and non-judgmental attitude (the only third-party criticism of Ms. Lombard’s association w/ Robert Stack is of Jack Benny’s “stupid jealousy,” a decidely non-patriarchal expression) keeps the scale of the film small and personal, so that the horrors just outside are never fully expressed.

This is where the genius of To Be or Not to Be comes in: by taking power away from the Nazis through humor (and a bullet or two). They are constantly represented as buffoons-in-uniforms, from robotic soldiers and bureaucrats to flustered and ridiculous officers. At no point in the film do they win, even though they’re bombing Warsaw and executing Poles. Lubitsch cleverly manipulates the viewer and early on causes them to question appearances so by the time we’re made to judge the man wearing the uniform, whether Polish actor or German enlisted man, we know which group we’re with regardless of what they’re wearing. It’s not reality but a version of reality we agree is better.

Even though the film avoids any of the regular historical documentary trappings, it also succeeds because when the horrors of war…or masses of occupying troops…or other scenes of destruction need to be portrayed. Primarily, this is achieved by a change in the tone visually so that those scenes now hearken back to the silents with their use of heavy blacks and silence.

Lubitsch was a master of the deft touch in storytelling, both for pithy bon mots and an economy of storytelling visually, like a powerful pianist that crates the gentlest trills and glissando with hands strong enough to rip your head off. This is not a lightness created through the diminishing of its subject matter, this is the lightness of a man who has overcome expressing any anger or hate but whose righteousness compels him to address an evil directly – sometimes offering an unflinching glimpse – but not in a manner to distress his audience.

Lubitsch’s attention to detail in all aspects of the filmmaking process are legendary. He has been described as seeking complete mastery of the involved techniques but assuming sole control of none. His roots as a tailor are often cited with his stitching together so many high-quality elements into his work. This film is a prime example: from Carole Lombard’s personal designer Irene being brought aboard, to fellow ex-pats the legendary cinematographer Rudolph Maté (a carrer that spanned from Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr to Welle’s The Lady from Shanghai) and the equally exceptional composers Werner R. Heymann (who had worked extensively with Murnau, Lang, et al.) and an uncredited Miklós Rózsa.

Most wonderful of all in this production-within-a-production is the cast. My greatest surprise on first viewing was how well Jack Benny carried the weight of the film, a far cry from the soft and self-indulgent caricature of a man I grew up with seeing on television. Even though he already affected many of the same mannerisms (self-important and -pitying victimhood), that is just one side to his character. When he steps up to the plate and takes on missions that may be his last, he is a believable hero and you’re rooting for him. When he’s roasting or outwitting some dumbkopf from the SS, you’re right there with him. Lubitsch saw more talent in Benny than he did in himself, to the extent that the role was tailored by the director specifically for him. He is reported to have said:

“You think you are a comedian. You are not even a clown. You are fooling the public for 30 years. You are fooling even yourself. A clown – he is a performer what is doing funny things. A comedian – he is a performer what is saying funny things. But you, Jack, you are an actor, you are an actor playing the part of a comedian and this you are doing very well. But do not worry, I keep your secret to myself.”

Balancing out the insecure Benny was the glamorous and assured Carole Lombard. Married to Clark Gable and reported bored staying at home trying to start a family, she offered herself for the role after Lubitsch was heard to be having difficulty placing the ctresses he was interested in. Her performance has a touch of that incandescence I’d associate with Marlene Dietrich with a dash of her own sassy sensibilities. Tragically, she died in plane crash the year the film was released.

I could rant on about the rest of the cast and their stellar performances but hopefully you’ll watch the film and see for yourself. I’ll leave you with some of the director’s own words in response to two (!) negative reviews by one critic in the New York Times:

“Are these people really so harmless? Do I minimize their danger because I refrained from the most obvious methods in their characterization? Is whipping and flogging the only way of expressing terrorism? No – the American audiences don’t laugh at those Nazis because they underestimate their menace but because they are happy to see this new order and its ideology being ridiculed. They have no sympathy with men who jump out of a plane without parachutes because a man with a little moustache says “Jump!” They have contempt for people who get a perverted plesasure out of such serfdom.

I am positive that that scene wouldn’t draw a chuckle in Nazi Germany. It gets a big laugh in the United States of America. Let’s be grateful that it does, and let’s hope that it always will.”

To Be or Not to Be
Ernst Lubitsch

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