To Be or Not To Be (Lubitsch, 1942)

From Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 classic To Be or Not to Be
From Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 classic To Be or Not to Be

With the recent success of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and last year’s Best Picture nomination for Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, there has been a resurgence of discussion surrounding how Hollywood depicts World War II in general and the average German citizen’s response to Nazism in particular.

The Reader prompted negative editorials from Ron Rosenbaum (in Slate) and Rod Lurie (in The Huffington Post) which, at the very least garnered enough attention to prompt Harvey Weinstein and Stephen Daldry to issue a statement defending their film.

Six months later, what is telling about these arguments is that they are not entirely (or even, one might argue, principally) about The Reader itself as they are about The Reader as part of a seeming trend–that of presenting or thinking about the Holocaust as perpetrated by a small minority who intimidated the frightened majority into going along. Lurie says the film goes so far as to provide ammunition for Holocaust deniers. Weinstein and Daldry admit that the film is overtly about the German people wrestling with this element of their history, but vehemently deny that the film is revisionist, even citing Elie Wiesel as a defender:

THE READER is a film about how a generation of Germans lived in the shadow of one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century. Some detractors of the film have said that it is a piece of Holocaust revisionism; however Holocaust survivors, children of Holocaust survivors and a Nobel Peace Prize winner feel differently.

These arguments may feel new to those confronting them for the first time, but they’ve been around since before World War II was even over.

In a letter to Herman G. Weinberg from Ernest Lubitsch (reprinted in Film Culture 25 [1962]) the Russian born, Jewish-German director defended his classic comedy (starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard and later remade by Mel Brooks) from charges that it ridiculed the Polish victims of German aggression:

To Be or Not To Be has caused a lot of controversy and in my opinion has been unjustly attacked. This picture never made fun of Poles, it only satirized actors and the Nazi spirit and the foul Nazi humor. Despite being farcical, it was a truer picture of Naziism [sic] than was shown in most novels, magazine stories and pictures which dealt with the same subject. In those stories the Germans were pictured as a people who were beleaguered by the Nazi gang and tried to fight this menace through the underground whenever they could. I never believed in that and it is now definitively proven that this so-called underground-spirit among the German people never existed.

It may be possible to argue, I suppose, that Lubitsch’s proximity to the event could shade his judgment as much as our relative remoteness. Noam Chomsky reminds his listeners (in Power and Terror [Junkerman, 2002]) that the very definition of a “war crime” was something the Germans did and Allies did not, underscoring the fact that rest of the world has a psychological, political, and moral stake in arguments about civilian complicity with fascist authority.

The larger point, though, is that Hollywood has participated from the beginning in shaping our attitudes in the service of a political or ideological point of view. The Reader was not the first portrayal of the German people as being beleaguered by Nazism, nor was Quentin Tarantino the first to mine the fascist mindset for Juvenalian satire.

Towards the end of To Be Or Not To Be, the Polish acting troop has successfully imitated Adolf Hitler and his entourage and boarded a plane taking off from Warsaw. It only remains to deal with the two German pilots who were not in on the plot. “The Fuhrer wishes to speak with you” they are told.  A polish actor, dressed as Hitler, stands by an open door in the airplane. “Jump” he commands the two parachute-less men. “Yes, mein Fuhrer” they reply, willingly casting themselves out of the airplane to their death.

In it’s way, the scene is as pointed, funny, and disquieting as anything Quentin Tarantino has ever filmed, and it is but one moment in a film filled with the jaw-dropping audacity of Ernst Lubitsch and the impeccable comic timing of Jack Benny and Carole Lombard.

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