‘My Nazis are different,’ Ernst Lubitsch said in reply to critics who hadn’t liked his film To Be or Not to Be. The critics thought he was failing to be funny about what shouldn’t be laughed at anyway, the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Lubitsch – we can read his response in the material accompanying the recently issued Criterion DVD version of the film – thought the critics had failed to see how even Nazism could become a routine, a home for stock figures and therefore mechanical, ridiculous. The invasion is not trivialised in such a view, but it is held up to an austere comic light where everything is a simulation or fraud of some kind. It is true that the film isn’t all that funny in any immediate sense.
Mel Brooks’s 1983 remake of the film is very funny, and plunges with gusto into every aspect of the bad taste Lubitsch was wrongly accused of. There are musical numbers, including ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ in Polish, a comic Hitler sequence borrowed from The Great Dictator, and great performances from Brooks himself, Anne Bancroft and José Ferrer. But the jokes are not about Nazis or about history. They are about the piety and melodrama we have wrapped them in for our protection.
Things are different with Lubitsch. Here, even a famous line, literally repeated (and amplified) by Brooks, has an eerie air about it, as if its topic were at the same time invisible and too obvious. When Jack Benny, playing a Polish actor impersonating a German colonel, is told that his repressive exploits are admired all over Europe and that he is known as Concentration Camp Ehrhardt, he chuckles like a man deeply flattered, as if he were being told that his performances of Falstaff would always be remembered – or more to the movie’s point, that he was as famous as he wished he was. His battered vanity is a recurring theme. People repeatedly fail to recognise him as the ‘great, great actor’ he keeps calling himself, and when a visitor does remember a particular show it is because he thinks, in another of the film’s well-known epigrams, that the Jack Benny character did to Shakespeare what Hitler did to Poland. Then when Benny returns to the Concentration Camp nickname, still chuckling, and invokes it several times in a row, it is because he is playing for time and can’t think of anything else to say. And there is the final intricate gag structure that emerges when Benny, now in another disguise, tells the actual Ehrhardt about his honorary title. The man says, in exactly the flattered, amused tone Benny had invented as a fiction, ‘So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt?’ A claim to fame, a piece of flattery, grounds for self-congratulation, a temporising tactic, and an instance of absurd life imitating absurd art: this is a lot of work for a single phrase to do, yet none of it encompasses or even looks at the meaning of the phrase. The camps just flicker there in the dialogue, an offstage horror; but perhaps, Lubitsch would say, all the more of a horror for being (just) offstage, so frivolously not part of the main play.
The film opened in 1942, just two years after The Great Dictator, but it feels as if it belongs in mood to a time when everybody knew who had won the war. Not quite 1983, certainly. Say, 1956. It’s not that these Nazis couldn’t win: they’re not that different. But even if they won they would still be trapped in their caricature of themselves, and the double take that opens the film dominates almost every moment of it. We are in Poland in 1938, no invasion has taken place, yet people in the street are staring in horror at a small strutting, uniformed figure: Adolf Hitler. The man turns out to be an actor from Jack Benny’s troupe, he has the role of the Führer in a play they’re doing called Gestapo, which seems, in rehearsal at least, to consist mainly of people saying ‘Heil Hitler’ all the time and making one feeble salute after another. Then the actor wants to prove he really can be taken for Hitler, and goes out onto the Warsaw streets again. A child asks him for his autograph – as an actor. Take one: to seem to be is to be. Take two: to seem is only to seem. The plot of the movie, which involves a German spy, Polish members of the RAF, and the need to rescue fake Nazis from real Nazis, rests on this double possibility. If seeming is being, all kinds of things can happen. The risk of real-life acting is that seeming could always be uncovered as seeming.
The title phrase itself has an even more complex role in the movie. Carole Lombard, as Jack Benny’s wife, tells an admirer to come and see her in her dressing room as soon as Benny, playing Hamlet, starts his celebrated soliloquy. There’ll be plenty of time. The admirer gets up and makes his way along a row of theatre seats. Benny thinks this is a critical comment on his performance and gets upset. More so when it happens again, and again. Is he more upset or less when he learns that the man is not reacting to the stage performance but going backstage to see Lombard? Hard to tell. It’s all vanity either way. As is her willingness to see her admirer. She’s not really interested in him, only in being admired. Theatre people.
So far the Poles are nicer than the Nazis but no less caught up in their own self-image, still just caricatures of what an actor or an actress or a suitor are. The point is about the universality of theatre and posture. It’s a good point, and part of what Lubitsch means when he says his Nazis talk about torture ‘with the same ease as a salesman referring to the sale of a handbag’. Wrapped in old routines, all of them. What gets the film out of these routines is not its storyline or argument or a twist on the grand theatrical metaphor but Lubitsch’s trust in his stars, and his sense of what a movie star is.
Benny and Lombard say their lines and wear their make-up well enough for the story to move along. They are, as the credits say, Joseph Tura and Maria Tura. But they carry these roles as forms of half-donned costume, and we keep seeing in them not the tale of Polish actors playing parts but the literal reality of American actors playing themselves. In this way Lubitsch designs their escape from simulation, and his strongest answer to the Nazis is not to suggest that there are better historical actors than they are, but to create figures who can appear not to be acting. Of course to play oneself is still to play a part, but it is also to assert a form of freedom. Behind or inside Benny the terrible classical actor is Benny the impeccable comedian, and if many of his lines are too dark or bitter to be funny, his timing and his sense of himself create a whole new dimension for the film. The implication is not just that the Nazis and the story he is in are ridiculous but that he is not really there. He is not even trying to believe what isn’t or shouldn’t be believable.
Lombard’s dissenting effect is different but just as strong – stronger, perhaps. She is elegant, a little languid, plays down the affectations the script gives her, has an air of calm sincerity when she pretends to like the sinister spy who is trying to get her to say ‘Heil Hitler’. We don’t feel she’s not there, in the plot, in Poland. But there is something so luminous, so unruffled and alive about her face and her gestures that the plot shrinks around her, and Poland becomes, as anywhere would, her real native country: the movies. Lombard died in a plane crash before the film opened, and if we know this fact it’s hard to keep it out of our minds as we watch her. The film literally says what Roland Barthes says all still photographs say: this person is going to die. But even without this fact, as Lubitsch must have known, Lombard refutes his Nazi world whereas Benny only suspends it. Benny knows how to be ridiculous with style, but no one could make Lombard look ridiculous at all.