Thursday, November 29, 2018

To Be or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)

Springtime for Hitler

(Another in a series of tributes to the lamentable closing of Filmstruck, which not only shows rare films (Robert Bresson's The Trial of Joan of Arc) but also Hollywood classics--a comedy which if anything is still relevant today

Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be opened to mixed reviews and so-so box office. A comedy that poked fun at Nazism and Adolf Hitler? At a time when fascism threatened to swallow the world (Pearl Harbor happened a few months before)?

Casablanca was released later that same year to better acclaim and boxoffice; Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator came out two years earlier to good business, despite being banned in parts of Europe and Latin America. Regarding this film Bosley Crowther in The New York Times harumphed: "To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case."

Possibly public (and critics') mood was that mercurial: when Dictator came out the United States still hadn't entered the war; Hitler was wreaking havoc in faraway Europe. Casablanca never really had a problem: it has comic moments but the heroes are clearly heroic (despite a token neutrality) the Nazis hissably rotten.

For all the lightness Lubitsch has loaded the film with considerable meaning, from the title (which begins Hamlet's soliloquy on suicide) to an early image of Hitler standing in the streets of Warsaw, being gawked at by surrounding Poles. Is it really him? Or an impersonator? To be or not to be?

Turns out Bronski (Tom Dugan) plays Hitler in a stage production called Gestapo--he'd been challenged as to the authenticity of his makeup and has stepped out to measure the response of folks on the street.The reaction so far has been everything he could wish for until a child (of course) steps up and asks him--as Bronski--for an autograph.

Along with the theme of appearance vs. reality is Lubitsch's favorite subject, people's tendency towards concupiscence and corruption--Warsaw may collapse around them and the Nazis march down the streets but the members of this particular theater company still feel the need to snipe, backbite, steal scenes from under each other. Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) still has to strike a glamour pose before launching into his character's most famous soliloquy, still has to pause like any bad actor in the middle of his opening line ("To be or not. To be."). His wife Maria (Carole Lombard) still has to meet handsome young Lt. Sobinski (Robert Stack) backstage, and Sobinski--in an underhanded comment on Joseph's talent--still has to stand up to leave for Maria's dressing room just when Joseph utters his opening words. People must act like people, even when the world they know is about to crumble; it's an axiom to Lubitsch and by extension to us--a comfort almost.

It's this axiom--this Lubitsch's Law if you will--that ultimately whittles the Nazis down to size. The first time we see a member of the Gestapo he's an actor, and if you aren't paying attention it can be a while before you realize something's up. The second time the occasion is more impressive: Maria sits in a hotel room (naturally a Nazi has taken a liking to her) without permission to leave and there's a knock on the door. She answers. An imposingly tall man asks to step inside, to wait for her dinner companion (who has been called out). Tall man doesn't do anything, just stand there, quiet as a statue. Turns out the man is Capt. Schultz (Henry Victor), assistant to Gestapo commander Col. Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman), and while Schultz doesn't drink and doesn't smoke (much like his dry smokeless Fuhrer) neither does he have much wit about him, or imagination, and Tura and his wily if willful actors set about taking advantage of this fact.

The brave thespians first have to get past Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), an anomaly in Lubitsch's films--a smooth urbane man who does drink and smoke and yet isn't very comic beyond the drollery lightly sprinkled on his banter. He isn't stupid--stupid would have been funny. When he's called away to meet Ehrhardt (it's his hotel room Maria is sitting in and her husband he's actually meeting) Joseph Tura has taken up the task of fooling Siletsky and somehow wheedling a crucial list of names from the man's grasp. The joke is ultimately on Tura as his own jealousy trips him up, Siletsky immediately senses this, and uses the slip to his advantage.

The rest of the Nazis aren't as dicey; if anything it's the monolithic enormity of their presence that's the real challenge--which is how the two major themes dovetail into each other. Bronski walks the streets of Warsaw dressed as Hitler; was he a threat? Not really; a child could see through him. Nazis march into Warsaw after a thorough bombing (Lubitsch in a series of images showing us the shattered storefronts, their long Polish names splintered into brief syllables) and a lot of troops. They put on, as the actors point out, a bigger better show but (as the actors also point out) still a show, still mounted by performers, and (as Tura's theater company continues to demonstrate and as Lubitsch suggests in one film after another), still susceptible to corrupt concupiscence--something one should keep in mind when dealing with the Trump administration, or (on a smaller scale) the Duterte administration. To answer a question Billy Wilder asked himself so often he put the words on a sign hung prominently up in his office ("How did Lubitsch do it?"): Lubitsch did it--he confronted a vulgar murderously ugly regime with sophistication and subtlety and understated humanity, thrilling us and prodding us to laugh in the process.

How Lubitsch does it is harder to define--you rarely catch him 'directing.' Scenes play out in medium shot, in continuous takes, to allow the actors to set their rhythm and create momentum. The deadpan realism helps sell various deceptions: the impersonated Hitler is shown so matter-of-factly we're at first forced to accept him as real, and when people walk on or off the set (much as in theatrical farce) we're prodded to think they are who they say they are even when they're not (in one brilliant occasion even when we know they're not who they say they are--and so do the Nazis--turns out (at least for said Nazis) they are). The story is from Melchior Lengyel, the plot developed by Edward Justus Mayer with uncredited contribution by Lubitsch, but perhaps Lubitsch's most significant contribution is in allowing the script to unfold in an appropriately spacious visual style, to be interpreted by his carefully guided company of actors playing actors.

It's a great eccentric theater company, and part of the suspense is in wondering (as in the case of Joseph Tura) if the actors will sabotage themselves before they manage to sabotage the enemy. The cast includes Robert Stack's handsomely dim Sobinski in the Ralph Bellamy role; Tom Dugan's aforementioned Adolf (impassive save for one hilarious moment near the end, when der fuhrer's mustachioed stoneface cracks out of horrified embarrassment); Felix Bressart's gently humane Greenberg, who dreams of someday playing Shylock (and in a crucial moment does so); and Lionel Atwill's blowhard Rawich, who never met a scene he couldn't overplay ("What you are I wouldn't eat" "How dare you call me a ham!"). Benny himself transposes his vainglorious persona to the big screen, forever attempting to utter Shakespeare's most famous line without interruption. On the opposing side Ruman's sputtering Col. Ehrhardt ("So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt eh?") is a walking encyclopedia of Nazi foibles who still manages to win our sympathy; Henry Victor's towering adjutant Capt. Schultz functions beautifully as a broad cork dartboard.

Tura's super secret weapon is of course his wife, the very embodiment of Lubitsch's Law. In her last role as Maria (she died in a plane crash only a month before the film's opening), Carole Lombard serves as lovely point guard for the Polish resistance--delivering messages, posing as a potential Nazi recruit, schmoozing and seducing her way up the Gestapo to the very top same time she soothes her rightly insecure husband with impassioned endearments ("Sweetheart, darling, I love you! Don't you know that? Don't you feel it?")--she's never been and never will be so heartstoppingly beautiful as when she's being deceitful. At one point she confides to Siletsky: "I once played a spy. It was a great success!" darling you're a glorious success--wouldn't mind being so cuckolded if you would only wrap your arms around me and breathed in my ear how wonderful I was.  

First published in Businessworld 11.23.18

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