Posted by David Kalat on May 17, 2014
As part of TCM’s tribute to the films of Mel Brooks, his 1983 remake of To Be Or Not To Be is screening on Tuesday. It’s a curiosity to be sure—too slavish to the Lubitsch original to really find its own voice as a Mel Brooks film, yet too much of a Mel Brooks film to bear easy comparison to the Lubitsch version.
Brooks and Lubitsch are ultimately very different filmmakers with very different comic sensibilities. Lubitsch was known for his oblique, indirect touch—often mistaken for “subtlety.” But there’s a difference. Lubitsch lobbed bawdy joke after bawdy joke at his audience, but in ways designed to just barely miss the target cleanly, and instead not fully register as dirty. The viewer is inundated by these off-target gags to the point they know they’ve seen something ribald, even if they can’t quite put their finger on quite what.
By contrast, Brooks nails every gag. He nails every gag to the floor, that is, and then sets up flashing hazard lights around them to make sure everyone spots them.
My choice of language probably gives away that I prefer Lubitsch’s dry wit to Brooks’ rimshot muggery, but so what? Yes, I have my tastes and preferences, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also admire Brooks and enjoy his films, too—this isn’t a zero sum game.
But when both men set out to film the same script, comparisons are going to be made, winners are going to be chosen.
Brooks’ changes to the story are few in number and small in scale, but they are significant in effect. Brooks measurably changes the center of gravity of the film.
He added a couple of subplots that altered how the climactic sequences play out. For one thing, in his version the Theater Polski is revealed to have been harboring a huge number of Jewish refugees—meanwhile, Maria’s gay hairdresser is captured by the Gestapo and sent off to a concentration camp. The finale of the Mel Brooks version is triggered by the need to use the big theatrical event and the pomp and circumstance surrounding Hitler’s visit to a) rescue the hairdresser and b) smuggle all the refugees out in Hitler’s personal plane.
His version clucks its tongue at the foibles and failings of the main characters, but also celebrates them as exceptional people who are transformed by their ordeal. This is the usual point of view of mainstream Hollywood films—the heroes are special, and their experiences change them.
It’s just that Lubitsch dared do it differently. His characters aren’t special, and their experiences don’t change them. Quite the opposite: their very ordinariness is what matters, and enables them to change the world around them.
They are bad ham actors—but their plan involves impersonating Nazis, who happen to be bad ham villains, so it works. Jack Benny’s initial attempt to pass himself off as “Concentration Camp” Erhardt seems ridiculous and pitiful, until we actually meet Erhardt and discover that Benny perfectly captured the man’s ridiculous pitifulness.
That’s the triumph at the heart of Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be—the opportunity to witness ordinary, flawed, petty little people subvert the Nazi war machine precisely because of their ordinariness.
However, this was a theme that sailed over the heads of contemporary audiences and reviewers who instead were scandalized by an American comedy film daring to make light of the Nazi invasion of Poland. In 1942, To Be Or Not To Be was seen as a tasteless misstep on Lubitsch’s part. Posterity rescued it, and eventually its status as a comedy masterpiece was recognized, but it took a while for audiences to get past the initial shock.
Long before Mel Brooks approached the idea of remaking Lubitsch’s notorious comedy, he had riffed on similar ideas—a farce about Nazis, steeped in theatricality and celebrating the ability of silly jokes and ham actors to triumph over the memory of Nazi terror. When you mention Mel Brooks’ The Producers today, most people inevitably think of the hugely popular Broadway show, not Brooks’ debut 1968 film, but there’s something telling about that. Broadway versions of movies do not always eclipse their movie parents: the 2008 Broadway version of To Be Or Not To Be, starring David Rasche, was savaged by critics and closed after barely a month.
But The Producers weirdly tracked the opposite path: the 1968 film sharply divided critics and audiences between those who found it funny and those who thought it tasteless and politically insulting. In other words, much the same response that Lubitsch faced in 1942. But when Brooks retooled it in 2001, the overwhelmingly positive response from critics and audiences begged for some kind of explanation: the underlying material hadn’t substantially changed, so the answer had to be that somehow the audience had changed.
Some commentators have theorized that what changed about the audience was that Jewish culture had been thoroughly incorporated into the American mainstream by 2001, but that in 1968 the more pervasive strains of anti-Semitism made Jewish Americans especially sensitive to perceived attacks. The humor of The Producers was threatening to a Jewish subculture, but once Jewishness was fully integrated into the main culture the threat had dissipated.
It’s what I’ve been saying about the legacy of the 1942 To Be Or Not To Be: audience perceptions are largely shaped by their cultural context, and the same material provokes different reactions in different contexts.
Had Lubitsch released his film in 1941, I think he’d been justified in anticipating the same kind of audience response as greeted Ninotchka: hey isn’t that outrageous, hey isn’t that funny. But instead To Be Or Not To Be came out post-Pearl Harbor, to an audience that could no longer comfort themselves that the Nazis were someone else’s problem, and who woke up every morning to grim news that said that Hitler was winning. It opened to an audience in desperate need of propaganda.
There are two fundamental problems with propaganda: one is moral, and one is aesthetic. They bleed into each other, but let’s take the moral problem first.
The thing about propaganda is it defines the enemy in very clean, stark us vs. them ways, and then seeks to dehumanize “them” so that it is easier to fight and kill them. But once you’ve defined your conflict in tribal terms, you’ve ceded a lot of the argument—by which I mean, if the only thing that makes us better than them is that we’re us and we’re not them, then the difference between good and evil is largely a matter of circumstance.
Admittedly, making some kind of relativist argument that seeks to equate the Allies and Axis powers as being all brothers under the skin is deeply problematic, but that actually leads us into the aesthetic problem:
Once you’ve started depicting your enemy as the ultimate Big Bad, then it follows that you need some kind of extraordinary response to be able to defeat that enemy. If Nazis are the worst manifestation of human depravity in history, the closest thing to the Devil walking on the Earth, then it’s going to take the greatest heroes to stop him: you need Great Men like Winston Churchill, General Patton, Douglas MacArthur—you need the Greatest Generation! It’s no coincidence that WWII is where a number of superheroes were born: Wonder Woman and Captain America, for example. The earliest iteration of James Bond, as a literary character in books by Ian Fleming, cast him as a WWII veteran.
In terms of storytelling, the propaganda mode doesn’t leave much room for any ordinary people—except as the victims, the people your heroes are going to save. Even Mel Brook’s version of To Be Or Not To Be buys into this mindset, with its nameless hordes of Jewish refugees rescued by the actors. Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be though isn’t a contest between us vs them—and Lubitsch is very careful to remind us throughout that we are in no position to even identify which people are on which side. For all you know Hitler’s a guy in a costume and Gestapo headquarters might be a theater. And the secret high sign between the Nazis, their passphrase “Heil Hitler,” might just be a joke uttered between Poles.
Lubitsch, by defying the propaganda aesthetic, achieved something truly extraordinary.
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