Posted by David Kalat on November 16, 2013
The repetition of certain lines of dialogue is one of the defining characteristics of Ernst Lubitsch’s cinema. Lubitschean characters repeat certain lines as a way of creating double-entendres on the spot. Audiences are expected to recognize the repetition, and to remember the context of the original lines, so that those memories get overlaid on top of the repeat, imbuing the words with a weight of additional meaning beyond the literal significance of the words themselves.
To single out an especially piquant example from To Be Or Not To Be, consider what Lubitsch does to the phrase “Heil Hitler.” Over the course of 90 minutes it is yawned by Jack Benny, treated like an Abbot and Costello routine by most of the rest of the cast—Heil Hitler! No, I Heiled Hitler first!—there is Bronski’s fake Hitler says “Heil myself,” and of course Carole Lombard’s orgasmic moan.
The central conceit of the movie isn’t about making fun of what the Nazis took from Poland, it’s about creating a fictional space where the Poles take everything from the Nazis. This isn’t a movie about the German invasion of Poland—it’s about a Polish invasion of Germans.
During the course of the film, our heroes subversively appropriate the Nazis’ uniforms, their identities, even their salute—and as these icons of Nazi terror are systematically taken over by the Polish actors it simply serves to undercut the power of those totems. They turn “Heil Hitler” into a punchline before the first German troops set foot in Poland.
By the time the real Nazis show up and try to say this salute seriously, the words have been completely deracinated and redefined by the heroes so that you can’t help but chuckle. Name one other movie where the phrase “Heil Hitler” is used as a joke.
Well, I can name one—Ninotchka, by Ernst Lubitsch in 1939. That’s right, the year that WWII began is when we find Lubitsch’s first ever “Heil Hitler” joke.
Ninotchka concerns the efforts of the Soviet government to raise money by selling some of the jewels confiscated from the former Russian royalty. A group of Soviet emissaries have been bumbling around Paris enjoying Western decadence without ever coming even remotely close to selling any jewels. So Stalin sends a new emissary to take over their misfired mission and get the job done right. So, the Soviet Three Stooges come to the train station, nervously awaiting the imminent arrival of this new agent.
They scan the faces of the people disembarking from the train, trying to spot which one is their newly arrived comrade. They see a little man with a scraggly beard and an Eastern European mien about him—this fellow is certainly Russian, they agree. But as they approach, he salutes, “Heil Hitler!” and embraces an Aryan blonde. Ooops.
So right away, the very first use of a Heil Hitler joke in the Lubitsch canon is about the danger of relying on stereotypes to judge people, about the difficulty in distinguishing us versus them. The guy you think is a communist turns out to be a Nazi.
And then here comes Greta Garbo as Ninotchka—she’s the one they’re supposed to be meeting. And she is a hard-edged, no-nonsense Bolshevik firebrand—a Communist Leslie Knope. Practically the very first words she speaks, uttered within seconds of the Heil Hitler gag, is to note approvingly that Stalin has just overseen a new round of mass trials—“There will be fewer, but better, Russians.”
Which is about as black a joke as you can get. Here is a joke about mass murder and state-sponsored terror that is intended to be our introduction to the title character, the heroine, Greta freaking Garbo—the person we’ve bought our tickets to see, the character whose triumph we are here to root for. And over the course of the movie, Ninotchka never backs down from that position or recant it. To the end she remains a committed Soviet, genuinely committed to the cause and determined to do her part to advance Stalin’s government’s agenda.
Not only that, but the movie stands in her corner, too. She gets to spread her propaganda to other characters in the film—and to us in the audience—and she is persuasive, too, getting Melvyn Douglas to join her team. Although she is corrupted by him in turn too, as we’ll discuss in just a second, just not in any way that implies that she was wrong to believe as she does.
Just ruminate on that. In 1939, Ernst Lubitsch made a comedy about communism that didn’t universally condemn it, and it was a mainstream blockbuster hit. This, from the director who brought you Design for Living, a romantic comedy that endorses three-ways as the solution to love triangles. Lubitsch was in the business of defying conventional wisdom and prevailing social mores and doing so in ways audiences enthusiastically endorsed.
How does Melvyn Douglas’ character corrupt Ninotchka? By getting Great Garbo to laugh. That was the selling point of the movie, you know—Garbo laughs! But more than just a one-off gimmick, it’s the heart of the movie and a consistent theme across Lubitsch’s body of work.
Melvyn Douglas seduces her with silly jokes—most of them told horribly, none of them very good. And in the end he has to abandon the wordplay and go for a slapstick pratfall, but once she laughs she’s hooked. Life is better when you laugh, and a society that rejects laughter isn’t a society that is worth fighting for. The ultimate contest between Capitalism and Communism won’t be won by ideology, it comes down to who has the best jokes.
It’s all about the liberating—and revolutionary—power of laughter. And in the end, it’s about the power of silly jokes and dumb slapstick, not sophisticated humor.
Which brings us to Cluny Brown. Because Ninotchka, with its first stab at a Heil Hitler joke, came out in 1939, the eve of war. And Cluny Brown also handles Nazism, in 1946, the end of the war. They are Lubitsch’s bookends to WWII, and they frame the themes of To Be Or Not To Be very nicely.
For example, consider To Be Or Not To Be’s villain, Professor Siletsky. In some ways he’s like Mr. Fisher from Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent—an intellectual whose speeches and radio broadcasts are key to whipping up anti-fascist sentiment in the West, but who turns out to be a traitor helping the Third Reich.
Did Lubitsch just crib the character type off of Hitchcock? Well, not so fast. You see, in 1946, Lubitsch returned to this theme in Cluny Brown, but this time the hero is an intellectual who escaped the Nazi clutches in Czechoslovakia and is a man without a country in England, where a group of idealistic young people lionize him for his moral and intellectual fervor—he’s Siletsky, but for real, what Siletsky would have been if he wasn’t a turncoat fraud. His name is Adam Belinksy—which even sounds like Siletsky.
Cluny Brown was adapted from a novel, and the hero of the novel was a horny author, not a Czech exile known for speaking out against fascism. In adapting the novel into the movie, Lubitsch went out of his way to bring in the parallels to Siletsky—and so it’s hard not to see Cluny Brown as giving us a redemptive take on Siletsky.
Adam Belinksi, played by Charles Boyer, falls in love with the free-spirited manic pixie dream girl Cluny Brown, played by Jennifer Jones, and they bond over silly jokes. The repeated line in Cluny Brown is Belinski’s reference to defying conformity by choosing to throw “squirrels to nuts,” instead of the (more sensible) other way round. And they quote this back and forth to each other, and to other characters, throughout the film as a way of distinguishing which people have a proper love of silliness or are agents of conformist stuffiness.
But the thing is, although Cluny Brown is set in 1939 and features endless talk about the urgency of facing the Nazi menace, no actual Nazis appear in the film at all. For a movie seemingly obsessed with Nazis, it never gets around to showing any. Except it does show plenty of conformist, small-minded, laughless people—the people who side with censors and put labels on people. These are the eternal villains of Lubitsch’s films. They’re the bad guys in The Man I Killed, in Design for Living, in Ninotchka, in Shop Around the Corner, in Cluny Brown, and in To Be Or Not To Be—and every other Lubitsch film ever made, too.
And here’s where things can get tricky, if you come into To Be Or Not To Be looking for a specific condemnation of Nazism, if you’re looking for propaganda. Because what Lubitsch decries about Nazis, what he opposes, isn’t something unique to them—it’s the same thing he’s been fighting all along. And that’s because, as we’ve seen all throughout this movie, the Nazi salutes and Nazi uniforms and all those markers of Nazism don’t really mean anything. Anybody can wear that uniform, anybody can say Heil Hitler. That doesn’t mean a thing. What matters is the person underneath—and people are people, the world over.
That’s where Lubitsch got himself into trouble with 1942 audiences—because they came for propaganda. He could get away with heroic communists in Ninotchka because in 1939 we weren’t yet in full Red Scare mode—if Lubitsch had tried that same movie in the McCarthy era the response might have been very different. And when To Be Or Not To Be opened in March of 1942, it opened to a country at war with the world, and watching in dismay as Hitler was winning that war.
To Be Or Not To Be is part of an existing tradition of Nazi satires made in the early 1940s—which included Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, the fourth highest grossing film of 1940. Having Jack Benny dressed as a Gestapo officer should have been nothing compared to having Charlie Chaplin play Hitler. Right?
But there’s a difference—Chaplin didn’t lose his audience when he played Hitler—he lost his audience a few years later with M. Verdoux when he invited that audience to sympathize with a serial killer.
To Be Or Not To Be didn’t get in trouble for putting Jack Benny and his costars in SS uniforms but because it systematically invited the audience to identify with Nazi characters, like Sig Rumann.
Consider the power of the “piece of cheese” joke. The “piece of cheese” joke is an amazingly powerful piece of subversion, when you think of it. The first time we hear it, it is part of a play—and within the world of the play, we are supposed to think of it as something that disloyal German citizens mutter to each other in secret as a way of secretly resisting the Nazis. But as soon as it is mentioned, it turns out the Gestapo officers have heard it, too—and suddenly everyone is worried about whether their reaction to the joke will be perceived as politically correct.
Yet we discover the joke is circulating among the Polish underground—disloyal Poles muttering it in secret. And wait—the Gestapo has heard it, too, and they are worried about whether their reactions are perceived as politically incorrect. This silly joke has jumped all kinds of boundaries—it exists in fiction and reality in the same way—the first encounter was a counterfeit but it turns out there is a real one, too, and it behaves the same way as the counterfeit. That’s some joke.
But we’ve seen in Ninotchka how a silly joke can unravel the most deeply held ideologies. And both Ninotchka and To Be Or Not To Be had their stories written by Melchior Lengyel, so we should expect to find some parallels.
This is why the Nazis are bound to lose. Because you can ban jokes all you want, it doesn’t stop people telling them—and a society that tries to forbid silly jokes will find itself in perpetual war with its own citizens, while the society that celebrates the silly will find no end of converts and loyalists.
Our heroes don’t just celebrate jokes—they invented this one—and if there’s one thing we know from watching Lubitsch’s films, it’s that in a battle between comedians and censors, the comedians always win.
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