To Be or Not to Be
Truth, Fiction, Belief (1983 lecture)
This is a serious play – a realistic drama. It is a document of Nazi Germany!
– Dobosh (Charles Halton)
To Be or Not to Be is more “theoretical” than a lot of what passes for film theory these days. By this I mean that its complex, conceptual logic is dazzling, systematic and flawless – as well as constantly surprising, funny and provocative. No wonder Ernst Lubitsch caused a small scandal with it in the midst of wartime! It never shies away from its outrageous goal of somersaulting across the different levels and ways of representing its white-hot subject matter of Nazi atrocities.
So, excuse me if we need to swiftly jump through a few theory-hoops in order to catch up with – or even just get to the starting-line of – the genius of Lubitsch. It is a posture to which I have become accustomed, as a humble critic in the face of this greatest of all filmmakers. You don’t believe me? Well, we shall see.
Here’s a basic theoretical idea from semiotics: the referent. The thing – the real thing – that is rendered, pointed at, ‘indexed’ (dangerous word!) by a representation, a story, a depiction. So the film, novel or painting of World War II gestures to its referent, that war, which occurred in the past (or is still contemporaneously occurring, in the case of this movie) in reality. But that referent is readable, legible, only through the signs arranged and distributed, at many levels, by the representation. An “omniscient narrator” (who promptly disappears at the 25-minute mark) announces at the beginning of To Be or Not to Be: “We’re in Warsaw” – a signification that is doubled and tripled everywhere else in the image and on the soundtrack. What Lubitsch could do with layers of descriptive or denotative ‘redundancy’!
Lubitsch’s film, you will have noticed, is not a documentary, even if it seems to begin in a mock-doc manner. It’s a fiction – a Hollywood fiction – that deploys the minimum possible conditions of realism or verisimilitude: there are visible signs in the Polish language, but everyone (narrator included) is speaking English, usually also in all-American accents. (Often names are doubled: Mr Tura is Joseph on a theatre poster and Józef on his apartment listing.) That’s a very typical movie convention. And then, quite quickly after the opening sequence, there are glaring incursions from other systems of representation, such as Jack Benny (in the role of Tura) as comedy celebrity, or – an even bigger deal at the time – movie star Carole Lombard (who died in 1942 at age 33, just prior to the film’s release), lead-billed as Tura’s wife, Maria.
In principle, you might imagine, an excessively ‘real’ fragment – such as a cameo from a public figure like Adolf Hitler – would weaken or even break the internal balance of verisimilitude in a Hollywood fiction; it would constitute a non-performance from an actual person, which is a difficult intrusion to manage within the system. So there is a limit beyond which even this amazing film cannot go, and it directly touches this limit in the climatic scene at the theatre: the back of Hitler’s head! (1) Note, too, that even Hitler’s true voice is skilfully erased from the film: the audio in the scene of a radio broadcast of a Nazi rally is simply (and weirdly) a loop of almost distorted crowd noise!
You could say that there’s a type of knowledge of the reality that is outside (beyond) the film – in 1942 and still now – and the status of this reality is precisely vouchsafed by its striking absence from the determined limits of the artwork: it’s more a colloquial knowledge, a folk knowledge of Hitler and the Third Reich … Note the part played by certain off-screen events – especially those involving gun-shooting and death (as well as romance-wise, a plane flight). Notice, too, the role of popular, shared jokes in this fiction: where they come from and where they go; jokes are a handy and often wise index (there we go again!) of this realm of popular knowledge. For instance, we can form from the film a popular imaginary of what was supposed, during the war and long after, to be typical Nazi behaviour: sexually repressed (and yet perverse), blustering and yet menacing (Lubitsch manages several fine lightning-fast switches of mood on this point), vegetarian and teetotalling, always “passing the buck” and shifting responsibility or blame …
Above all, it’s always a question of origin: an origin that guarantees the Real – or the effect of the Real, the reality-effect, as Roland Barthes would say (2) – above and beyond its many fakes, duplications, repetitions (in the dual sense of both ‘multiplicity’ and ‘rehearsal’), reproductions and representations. But how can we possibly ground that guarantee? Lubitsch’s Lesson: “That picture – that’s what [Hitler] should look like!” – “But that picture was taken of me!”– “Then the picture’s wrong, too”. Or: “Where was that [farm]?” – “In the Chronicle”. Reality and its (media) simulacrum confused, as in Jean Baudrillard, whose work is not a fraction as funny as Lubitsch’s … the question of precession, of ‘which comes first?’. (3) The film will play dozens of variations on this, most dizzyingly when it comes to the matter of a fake beard.
In the absence of any truth-principle, there is only performance – and a persuasion that either works, or doesn’t. But what constitutes a ‘good’ performance? (4) It’s an insistent question in a film that so often returns to the issue of ‘bad’ or ham acting (not only Tura’s, but also and especially that of Rawich, played by Lionel Atwill – overacting can trigger deadly consequences in this story). A performance can be evaluated only within the defined, internal limits of its own, graded fictionality. And hence we reach the shore of believability (which is one translation of verisimilitude) – and believability hinges on the reality-effect. Good, successful effects: arguments rage on this throughout the film, from Maria’s dazzling dress (to be worn in a concentration camp scene!), to the private rendition (“It moved me to tears”) of Shylock’s soliloquy from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice as delivered in the street by Greenberg (Felix Bressart) – note here Lubitsch’s superb touch of undermining irony, when the strong utterance of the letter ‘p’ blows the lanky hair on the head of Bronski (Tom Dugan). (5)
There is much brilliant physical work in the mise en scène of To Be or Not to Be – watch, for example, the rhyme of Tura circling the sleeping body of Sobinski (Robert Stack) and later the dead body of Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), where reactions and actions depend on the device of the double or even triple take. But Lubitsch, in his immense art, brings the role of verbal language into the foreground of screen comedy. Not just for witty lines, double entendres (“the little thing in the second row”) or screwball rhythms; but as a dynamic, fully performative vector in the action: direct, denoted meaning is frequently left behind for the sake of strategies of ruse, rush (the extraordinary way that Lombard utters “Bye”, twice, to call an instant halt to communications), bluff, stopgap (stretching an improv … ), evasion, self-justification, diversion, smothering … And this device extends all the way to the banal, overly familiar phrases of “Heil Hitler” and, indeed, “To be or not to be” itself (hilariously ‘prompted’ before its first utterance, and left suspended in its final utterance: “That is …”).
The entire film is based on a complex process of punning – metaphor is truly the soul of wit here! – involving performance at all levels; Lubitsch reaches across and connects these levels with every joke and gag. There is performance on the stage; performance in the ‘theatre’ of war; and personal, sexual performance (with an emphasis on male virility, or its absence!). So, we could schematise the basic layers or levels of To Be or Not to Be as Theatre (the site of fiction); War, less on the military battlefield (although there is some killing) than in the moves of espionage; and finally, something like Daily Life, unspectacular, full of small intrigues (“After all, what a husband doesn’t know won’t hurt his wife”) that are beyond the exceptional, life-and-death circumstances of wartime. Life (as I’m calling it here) is the site where people simply ‘are what they are’, identical with their ‘type’. Part of the film’s logic is that characters tend to inhabit the same place on all three levels – and there is rich humour in the playing-out (and our gradual recognition) of this.
Take a look at Greenberg. With his pal Bronski, playing Rosencrantz & Guildernstern on stage, they silently carry spears on stage; when the theatre is closed down, they wield shovels in the snowy street (Lubitsch’s reframing camera movement marks this wonderful reveal). Greenberg recites Shylock’s soliloquy privately in life; he gets to perform it in a fabulous espionage ruse in front of a fake “Hitler” (whose best reality-effect is precisely not to speak at all! As if the representational limit mentioned above is itself fed back into the comic logic of the piece). Maria’s fabulous dress doesn’t ‘work’ for her irate director Dobosh – although Greenberg pipes up that it “would get a terrific laugh”! – but it works just fine on Siletsky (double-agent Nazi posing as Resistance member) in the “Mata Hari” phase of the espionage game. And speaking of Maria: in a story where husband and wife constantly fight for stage “ascendancy” and top billing, it’s (in the industrial reality beyond the film) Lombard who gets the billing over Benny (first two shots of the film), but Joseph who gets his face ahead of Maria’s in the opening credits’ graphic diagram, as well as on the diegetic theatre posters – and his name printed bigger than hers on the apartment occupant listing. On and on the semantic process goes, a true Lubitschian vertigo …
Truth, fiction, belief. Much of the comedy in the film plays on differential positions of knowledge (between the characters, between us and the film) that involve different levels of anticipation, expectation, surprise, naïveté or sophistication – a complex business I have elsewhere called guess-work. (6) It’s a game clinched in the Emperor’s-New-Clothes punchline of the opening sequence: a little girl in the gawping crowd can see, even if everybody else is fooled, that Bronski is not Hitler! One more double take from the actor, in a vast Lubitschian catalogue of such delayed reactions …
The only absolute, positive value of truth and authenticity in the film is patriotism. A patriotism that conjoins the imagined Poland, Britain (its heroic RAF squadron) and USA. Patriotism is the one thing that Lubitsch, in this context, is not (cannot be) ironic about (The Man I Killed tells a very different, deeply pained story in 1932 in relation to the traumatic memory of World War I). Tura: “You walk out on my soliloquy, you wear my slippers, and now you question my patriotism!” Near the end, there is the striking moment when the fleeing actors spot the local train station exploding in the distance: “The Underground is still alive!”
A table like the one I’ve sketched below might appear to pose superimpositions, echoes, rhymes, metaphoric connections, and so forth, as static things viewable at a glance, occurring simultaneously. That’s the risk of all “structuralism” in the study of the narrative arts. In truth, Lubitsch unfolds all these relations across the running time of the film, and in a truly magisterial way. Reprise – repetition with a difference – is the gagological key. Everything repeats: a scene in the Warsaw streets; theatre marquees; performances of Hamlet; dialogues with “concentration camp” Ehrhardt (phony and real). We participate, as spectators, in “getting” or grasping the connections – and their often wicked complement of humour. Mel Brooks, in his weak 1983 remake (of a film he clearly adores), sure didn’t get it!
A deeper, more comprehensive analysis would attempt to chart how the film moves from site to site in block-changes that are fully transformative – from (for example) to the theatre in Daily Life to the theatre dressed as fake Gestapo headquarters as part of Espionage, then over to the actual (makeshift) Gestapo offices, then to the theatre as commandeered by the Nazis, and finally arriving at normal theatre again, in another country, for a another performance of Hamlet … and a new guy sneaking out to Maria’s dressing room on the “coded” cue of “To be or not to be”.
A fuller analysis would also attend to the micro-changes in mood, tone, dramatic and comic shifts – another genre of reality-effect – such as when news of Germany’s invasion of Poland interrupts the “petty” arguments of love triangle: nobody does these switch-ups better than Lubitsch. Just study the “unhappy Poland” inversion of the film’s opening: the same signs, but in ruins; the entry into the streets not of a faux-Hitler but an entire marching troop … and a truly unhappy child. ‘Reality’, in this regime of tricky cinema, is what tears a scene or a mood apart.
Appendix: To Be or Not to Be Table (as painstakingly chalked onto the classroom blackboard in 1983) (7)
THEATRE (FICTION) WAR (ESPIONAGE) DAILY LIFE
1. At the time of giving this lecture in various forms and within several curricula at Melbourne State College during 1983 and 1984, I had not seen Parts 2 & 3 of the extraordinary essay by Jean-Louis Comolli (1941-2022) and geostrategy historian François Géré (then aged 28) published in 1978, “Two Fictions Concerning Hate”, which are devoted To Be or Not to Be (Cahiers du cinéma, nos. 288 [May] & 290-291 [July-August]). These authors make a similar point about the film’s representational limit: in the opening sequence: there can be no POV shots assigned to the (devious) Hitler figure. The first part of their essay, on Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! (1943), is translated by Tom Milne in Stephen Jenkins (ed.), Fritz Lang: The Image and the Look (London: British Film Institute, 1981). back
2. See Roland Barthes (trans. Richard Howard), “The Reality Effect” (1968), in The Rustle of Language (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), pp. 141-148. back
3. In 1982, I had been dazzled by Baudrillard’s major text written the previous year, “The Precession of Simulacra”, which I discovered first, in Samizdat form passed from hand to hand, in the Paul Patton/Paul Foss (both born Australian) translation that subsequently appeared in the legendary Australian magazine Art & Text, no. 11 (Spring 1983), pp. 2-47, and then in Simulations (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983). I append this precise bibliographic fact for the very proper Australian curator-researcher-artist (name purposefully long forgotten) who once added a correctional note to her citation of the interview she did with me for a 1980s-in-Melbourne retrospective show at George Paton Gallery: Martin could not have been reading Baudrillard in the early ‘80s, she proclaimed, because certain of the latter’s writings were not widely available on the fatal shores of Australia until ’84 … As if bona fide books (from over the seas, no less) are the only way people get to read things – especially in an arty underground subculture! back
4. An illuminating account of what is included and excluded from this soliloquy, in the context of the film’s at once apparent and elided component of Jewishness, is offered by Dorian Stuber & Marianne Tettlebaum, “To Be or Not to Be (a Jew)”, LOLA, no. 5 (2014). back
5. Three years after delivering this lecture, I formulated what I regard as my most complete statement about what I came to call the ‘rules’ of Truth and Performance, extending that couplet into an expanded notion of the performative film: “The Amazing, Performing Film”. This lengthy 1986 text (which I originally hoped to include in Mysteries of Cinema) is now available exclusively as part of the Tier 4 bonus, a 90-page PDF titled Golden Eighties, Volume 1, in the Patreon campaign supporting my website: www.patreon.com/adrianmartin. back
7. Almost 40 years on (and after intensive re-viewing of the film in 2022), I no longer entirely understand the fine logic of every little thing I inscribed into this diagram (I spent half of the class time in ’83 meticulously explaining it, when all the connections, echoes and rhymes noted were ultra-fresh in my mind) and/or where I categorically situated it – but I preserve it ‘as is’ for the historic archival record! back