Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Camp classic

Ernst Lubitsch's legendary comedy stirred controversy by pitting vain Polish actors against buffoonish Nazi killers.

By Charles Taylor
Published November 2, 1998 7:05PM (EST)

Prisoner being interrogated: "How do you make a Nazi cross?"

Nazi interrogator: "I don't know. How do you make a Nazi cross?"

Prisoner: "Tread on his corns." [Stomps on the Nazi's foot.]

Nazi: "Zat's not funny!!"
--Monty Python sketch

But of course, it is funny. Terribly funny. Comedy encourages our
natural disrespect for authority. It targets formality, stiffness, those
foolish enough to think that what they're doing is very, very important.
Nazis will always be irresistible comic targets because they're all of
those things -- and it doesn't hurt that they speak in funny accents. What
they did ... well, that's as far from funny as you can get. Roberto
Benigni's much-praised new film "Life Is Beautiful" -- a comedy whose last
hour is set in a concentration camp -- is so horrendous because Benigni
fails to see that a heartwarming comic fable is obscenely irrelevant to
the fact of the camps. If there were any justice, Benigni would be getting
the shellacking that Ernst Lubitsch did in 1942 when he released "To Be or
Not to Be."

Lubitsch, to be sure, walked a very fine line. This farce, set just before
and just after the 1939 invasion of Poland, is about a Warsaw theater
company that becomes entangled with the Nazis, and it makes all sorts of
tasteless jokes. In the most notorious sequence, Jack Benny, who has
disguised himself as a Nazi officer (nicknamed "Concentration Camp"
Erhardt) so he can intercept information about the Polish underground,
boasts, "We do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping." Critics who
were in thrall to "the Lubitsch touch," the light, glancing sophistication
he brought to pictures like "Trouble in Paradise" and "The Shop Around the
Corner," were appalled by the coarseness of much of the film's humor. But
Lubitsch knew that, given his subject, good taste would have been the worst
possible taste of all.

To those with their back against the wall, culture can seem a flossy
irrelevancy. "To Be or Not to Be" presents us with one of the most
preposterous images ever of high culture: Jack Benny in doublet, hose and
wavy blond wig, as Hamlet. Benny plays "that great, great Polish actor
Joseph Tura," the star of the troupe and a born ham, essaying the role of
the Melancholy Dane. Emerging from his dressing room in costume, he grabs a
backstage phone and says, "This is Mr. Tura. Could you please send me a
salami and cheese sandwich and a glass of beer?" And from that moment on,
culture and refinement don't stand a chance -- except when they connect
back to life instead of being a diversion from it. One member of the troupe
(Felix Bressart) dreams of playing Shylock, but in production after
production, he's a spear carrier. He gets his chance, though -- before the
toughest audience imaginable, a gaggle of Gestapo officers whom he favors
with Shylock's famous soliloquy, "If you prick us, do we not bleed?"

Art imitates life throughout "To Be or Not to Be," and life has the good
manners to return the favor. At the beginning, the troupe is rehearsing an
anti-Nazi propaganda play. Lubitsch includes a brilliant and daring joke on
the vanity of actors when Carole Lombard -- who plays Joseph's wife and
leading lady, Maria -- makes her first entrance in a slinky silk gown and
announces that she thinks it would make a great impression in the
concentration-camp scene. "Think of me being flogged in the darkness," she
says. "I scream and suddenly the lights go down and the audience discovers
me on the floor in this gorgeous gown." Word comes that the Polish
government has nervously canceled the performance. It's the first test the
movie puts the actors through. They'll get to make their anti-Nazi
statement, all right, just not within the self-contained world of the
theater (where they would only be preaching to the converted) but in the
real world where their performances must be flawlessly convincing. Later,
Tura will impersonate Colonel Erhardt to retrieve a list of members of the
Polish underground from the double agent Professor Siletsky (Stanley
Ridges), and then impersonate Siletsky to pass on phony names to the real

The head Nazi in "To Be or Not to Be," the real Colonel Erhardt (played by
the wonderful Sig Ruman), is a comic buffoon. So plump that he looks like
he's bursting out of his own skin and with a big walrus mustache and a
Katzenjammer Kids accent, he's a walking, talking sight gag. Erhardt is an
immensely likable guy, jovial and hearty and fated to get himself in one
pickle after another. Welcoming a visiting dignitary, he can't help but
tell a "very funny story" that's going around Warsaw. "They made a brandy
out of Napoleon and a herring out of Bismarck," he says, "and Hitler will
end up as a piece of cheese!" He's so delighted by the gag that it's
out of his mouth before he realizes his mistake. His loyalty now in
question, Erhardt can only sputter and extricate himself with a hasty,
fervent "Heil, Hitler!" Anyone who's ever made an indiscreet remark would
be heartless not to identify with him.

But he's a Nazi, too, and Lubitsch doesn't try to hide that. Erhardt isn't
just some harmless Colonel Klink (when we first see him he's giving orders
to arrest resistance members -- and we know what that means) or the
melodramatic villain typified by Conrad Veidt's Major Strasser in
"Casablanca," all hissing consonants with cigarette clutched between two
fingers. Erhardt is first and foremost a comic figure, but not one whose
menace has been nullified.

A movie where the monsters are human was a good deal more complex than
Hollywood's typical wartime fare, but that alone doesn't account for the
discomfort this movie caused. There were plenty of reasons not to find it
funny. Between the time it was made -- in late 1941 -- and the time it was
released -- in March of 1942 -- America had entered the war and the Nazi
push looked all but unstoppable. The first time we see Benny, he's dressed
as a Gestapo officer giving the Nazi salute. It turns out he's rehearsing a
play, but we're not told this at first, and the sight is profoundly
unsettling. You can imagine audiences in 1942 wondering if this is what the
world would look like in few years, with everything familiar and dear given
an unspeakable new visage. And there was something else, too. Three weeks
after finishing the film, Carole Lombard was killed in a plane crash while
on a bond drive.

The movie mixes so many genres -- farce, spy thriller, melodrama,
propaganda picture -- that it's often confusing. Perhaps Lubitsch, whose
greatest films seem so effortlessly perfect, was too caught up in his
feelings about the war to smooth out his movie. He'd certainly had a taste
of Nazi callousness. Lubitsch had been a famous actor in his native Germany,
and a cruel caricature of his squat, hawk-nosed profile had illustrated a
Nazi propaganda poster on how to recognize a Jew. (Nor should we forget the
birth name of this movie's star -- Benjamin Kubelsky.)

"To Be or Not to Be" is no longer shocking, as it was in 1942. Fifty-six
years later, for all its unevenness and perilous flirtations with
sentiment, it's amazing. It took astounding courage for
Lubitsch to change his accustomed style, and in the service of such risky
material. Made at a moment when it would have been easy to give in to
hopelessness and heavy-spirited exhortations about patriotic duty, or to
take refuge in the comforting reduction of evil to the inhuman, "To Be or
Not to Be" does neither. Its mixture of low vaudeville humor with an
intricate comic structure seems now to convey the hope that it would be
possible -- crucial -- to meet the horrors that lay ahead with something
like a human face.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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