By William Repass.
“I know that I look like Hitler, and I’m gonna prove it right now!”
Since any discussion of German-American director Ernst Lubitsch must devolve, sooner or later, into a feeble attempt at pinning down the so-called “Lubitsch Touch,” let us resign ourselves the inevitable, and see if Criterion’s August re-release of To Be or Not To Be still tickles us the same way it used to for those who watched the film back in 1942, when such “urbane sophistication” was busily pulverizing itself on the battlefields of Europe.
Nearly faithful to Classic Hollywood form, To Be or Not To Be siphons even the most distanciated spectator into its narrative womb. The farce begins in Warsaw, just days before the blitz. Our protagonists, Maria Tura (Carole Lumbard) and her husband Joseph (Jack Benny), work for a theater company in the midst of staging Shakespeare’s Hamlet, while at the same time rehearsing a much-too-soon lampoon of the Nazi regime. Note the meta. Not unlike Poland, the couple’s marriage evidently suffers from, shall we say, inadequately defended borders. When flyboy/stalker Lt. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack) leaves the audience to profess his adoration for Maria in her dressing room––interrupting Joseph’s travesty of the “to be or not to be” speech––Maria yields to his advances. And when he invites her to come up with him in his bomber, she replies, “I’ve never met a man who could drop three tons of dynamite in under two minutes,” and swoons into his arms, as only a Hollywood movie-star can swoon.
Hitler invades right on schedule, curtailing the affair almost before it begins. Sobinski escapes to England to fight for the RAF’s Polish Division, leaving Joseph and Maria back in Warsaw. Enter Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), a Nazi spy masquerading as a member of the Polish Underground (who bears an offhand resemblance to Leon Trotsky). After Siletsky “lets slip” to the Polish Division of his secret mission to return to their homeland, and agrees to contact the pilots’ families, Sobinski asks him to deliver a message to Maria: “to be or not to be.” But Siletsky rouses the airman’s paranoia by failing to recognize Maria Tura’s status as national “institution,” and the RAF parachutes Sobinski into Poland to neutralize the imposter. On his arrival in Warsaw, Siletsky makes contact with Maria, falls promptly into a frothing lust for her Arian cheekbones (turning the love-triangle into a lopsided square), and entreats her to serve with him as a spy for the Nazis, appealing to the actress’ bourgeois predisposition. To insure her survival, she plays the required role––blurring the distinction between stardom and international espionage. Meanwhile, Joseph comes home from a day of salvaging to find his old rival Sobinski not only sleeping in his bed, but wearing his slippers too––having landed behind enemy lines and evaded his stahlhelmeted pursuers. When Maria returns to the apartment after her engagement with Siletsky, Joseph suddenly finds himself caught up in a plot to kill Siletsky, which quickly involves the whole theater company and their recently acquired Nazi regalia.
But To Be or Not to Be repeatedly bulges at the frame, poking fun at itself as a prize specimen of Hollywood’s laboratory. In the context of this particular film, the Lubitsch Touch figures as a struggle to puncture the hermetic seal of Hollywood’s narrative sarcophagus. Stories-within-stories (the referenced play is Hamlet, after all), actors playing multiple roles, reflexive interjections, barely repressed innuendos, and running clownery all constantly derail the smooth linearity demanded by “proper form,” playfully sidestepping America’s eugenic Motion Picture Production Code at every turn. The star-system receives a specially disparaging treatment, with Lubitsch dramatizing both its political influence and easy manipulation in the hands of those who control it. At the same time, he places tentative hope in the subversive potential of performance and representation.
Retrospectively, To Be or Not to Be takes on a curious significance. If it began as a PR slogan, “The Touch” had by 1942 evolved into a prototype for the meme-gag à la Mitchell Hurwitz (see Arrested Development), where bad jokes become funny, then funnier, through repetition and intensification. To Be or Not To Be splices together various strands of cheap laughs, and the resulting chimera, at its most comedic, works by recycling and recontextualizing its naughty bits. For example, take the inevitable chorus of heils Hitler, complete with priapic salutes, whenever a group of Nazis convenes on-screen. The gag sees incremental proliferation throughout the film, until a whole theater-full of Nazis springs up to salute a faux-Hitler (played by the theater company’s token lookalike). Here, as in life, the mildly perverse manages to reproduce itself, and the intricacies of this repetition serve to bolster the film’s biting humor.
Even for a postmodern audience, Nazi gags fetch some dark laughs. But as a German director giggling at Nazis during the blitz, Lubitsch plunges his meta-slapstick deep in the blackest of tarpits, showing how comedy’s carnal subversion can bypass the unofficial censor via laughter, and turn the audience, for a moment or two, into a collective ape.
William Repass is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
To Be or Not to Be was released on DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion Collection on August 27, 2013.