–The Polish actor Bronski (Tom Dugan) as Adolf Hitler in To Be or Not to Be (1942).
Whether teaching 1940s Hollywood noir thrillers, or 1970s feminist avant-garde documentaries, or 1890s silent films about cats that go boxing, I always emphasize the resonance of cinema for addressing our present day social problems and cultural fixations. My favorite film to teach toward this end is undoubtedly Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942): a World War II-era farce about a troupe of Polish theater actors who save the world from fascist authoritarianism by impersonating various Nazi officials, including Hitler. Students vividly identify with how spryly the film navigates between light-hearted nonsense and horrific wartime violence. No topic is too raw or traumatic for Lubitsch’s “light touch”: from the atrocities of war, Blitzkrieg, the Jewish ghettoes, and German concentration camps; to sexual infidelity, emotional betrayal, and marital cuckoldry. Many students have told me that they associate this film with recent political satire—The Daily Show, The Onion, and the clowns of late night talk shows—giving them vital historical perspective on how comedy and cinema can help navigate social crisis and civil catastrophe. There is nothing that remains unsaid in To Be or Not to Be, but everything is said in the form of rapid-fire jokes and thinly veiled sexual or political innuendos. For my students, this film exemplifies the power of comedy to speak truth (or “truthiness”) to the atrocities of state violence and populist dictatorship.
I like to teach the film in a variety of courses, because it is extremely versatile as a text. For example, in my senior seminar, “Advanced Film Analysis,” we discuss how To Be or Not to Be exhibits the codes of classical Hollywood style (continuity editing, narrative plotting, self-censorship by the Production Code, etc.). In my larger lecture course, “Comedy: Text and Theory,” we dissect the film’s uses of bawdy innuendo and pithy word play, while grappling with its movement toward dark comedy to satirize the senseless global apocalypse that was erupting in 1942. Jokes moves at the speed of lightning in Lubitsch’s Nazi-Occupied Europe. For example, “They named a Brandy after Napoleon, they made a herring out of Bismarck, and the Führer is going to end up as a piece of cheese.” The outrage and confusion episodically caused by this punch line—as one character puts it, that “the Führer will go down in history as a delicatessen”—energizes the word play and moves the comedic action forward. It is virtually impossible to follow the gag without simultaneously analyzing the text. Hitler himself, as the opening voiceover announces, “is actually a vegetarian,” “despite his appetite for swallowing entire countries.” To that point, being a “ham,” though an insult to these eager players of Hamlet, becomes a form of tactical resistance against Nazi military assault. Greenberg, a Jewish actor in the troupe, thus ventriloquizes Hitler’s indigestion while accusing a fellow player of overacting: “Mr. Rawitch, what you are, I wouldn’t eat!” Rawitch responds in outrage: “How dare you call me a ham!” In a more pointed example, the company’s lead actor indirectly suffers verbal abuse from a Nazi Colonel: “What [you] did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland.” Ghastly innuendos shade into the next shot, while the threads of double-meaning often provide the basis for both visual continuity and the articulation of political satire.
The film’s constant collision between light farce and referential violence caused American film critics at the time to condemn To Be or Not to Be. Beyond its un-kosher metaphors, frothy word play repeatedly touches on the traumas of Nazi barbarism. For example, Colonel Erhardt, who has a knack for mixing theater and politics, responds to his notorious nickname of “Concentration Camp Erhardt”: “Haha! Yes, yes…Well, we do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping.” Allusion to Blitzkrieg is the verbal lubricant for sexual foreplay among Nazi officers, one of whom brags: “You might not believe it, but I can drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes.” The object of his seduction, Maria Tura (Carole Lombard)—wife of Joseph Tura (Jack Benny), the aforementioned thespian who puts the “ham” in Hamlet—responds to Erhardt’s suggestion that they toast to Blitzkrieg: “But I prefer a slow encirclement.” As the German emigré filmmaker Billy Wilder once quipped, “Lubitsch can do more with a closed door than most directors can do with an open fly.” It’s in this spirit that students retrospectively defend To Be or Not to Be against its fiercest contemporary critics. I love to read aloud from scathing 1940s film reviews.
Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times that the film was guilty of three sins: 1) mixing melodrama with comedy; 2) treating Nazis too lightly; and 3) using the occupation of Warsaw as a setting for comedy. Crowther thus accused Lubitsch of depicting a subject that is “far from the realm of fun,” because, he claimed, it is corrupted by “frequent doses of shock.” (It is worth noting that the film was released just several months after Pearl Harbor—and less than two months after the lead actress Carole Lombard tragically died in a plane crash.) The Times of London, in a review titled “An Artistic Blunder by Lubitsch,” declared the film “a disastrous attempt to reconcile two unreconcilable modes.” Similarly, the film critic Philip Hartung argued that light comedy was not an appropriate genre for representing these national traumas, claiming an antipathy between laughter and tears. He wrote, Lubitsch “asks us to laugh at some very broad anti-Nazi satire while we are weeping over the sad fate of stricken Poland.”
Putting the film’s laughter in its historical context is always a productive classroom exercise. Students express dismay that the critics of the time could have been so humorless. (One undergraduate told me that he wished he could time travel to 1942 and make Bosley Crowther watch Mel Brooks’s The Producers—a bizarre proposition, but very revealing of the power and belief that students often invest in their favorite political satires.) Yet, even this generation that grew up with Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Dave Chappelle, and Sarah Silverman has its comedic limits. Many of my students invoke current topics that they think should be off-limits for broad mockery or light-hearted farce, if not for comedic representation entirely. These issues range from suicide, rape, and sexual predation; to climate change, environmental disaster, and humanitarian catastrophe; and to drone attacks, terrorism, and endless wars (in Iraq, and Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere). As much as laughter can provide escapist relief or defiant refusal of the problems that most haunt us, it is also an aggressive tool for asserting political or psychological superiority over the other (the “superiority theory” is a longstanding discourse on laughter, extending from Plato, to Thomas Hobbes, to Henri Bergson).
As my students argue, the power dynamics of laughter make all the difference. The insult comic who “punches down” to browbeat an already disempowered minority should not enjoy the same legitimacy or approval as the incisive satirist who “punches up” against oppressive authority. For example, Daniel Tosh’s rape jokes, or Donald Trump’s mockery of a disabled reporter, or Bill Maher’s offensive use of the n-word exemplify “punching down,” regardless of whether one’s intent is to victimize the other or simply to generate publicity through shock value. In contrast, comedians such as W. Kamau Bell, Hari Kondabolu, Tig Notaro, Margaret Cho, and Maria Bamford engage with controversial issues through humor not to pander to the desire for sensationalism, but to expose and transform the very cultural norms that underpin social crises such as sexual predation, racism, homophobia, and the abjection of disability or mental illness. Students come to see To Be or Not to Be as a filmic precursor to more pointed examples of satire that they associate with post-war American stand-up or postmodern late-night television; they view it as a forceful text with an exuberantly muffled voice.
The fundamental problem of the film, as its title suggests, is one of being; “To Be or Not to Be” is the question, referring at once to the running gag of impersonating authority and to the characters’ wills to survive. Can Europe outlast the ravages of Nazi fascism? Yes, as the film persuades us, but only by means of vigorous make-believe and outrageous fantasy. It is the very performance of comedic mimicry (Polish troupe actors playacting as notorious Nazi officials) that will save the continent from the barbarism of Auschwitz, Dachau, and Bergen-Belsen. As we face our own piling litany of existential crises today—far-right populism, permanent war, climate change, and runaway neoliberalism—it is both politically evocative and oddly comforting to see the horrors of 1942 engaged so obliquely through allusive word play and absurdist exaggeration.
What is the capacity of farce to get at the truth? This is a problem that my students and I discuss throughout the semester. In the comedy class, the thematic of “fake news” looms large—a topic that we engage by trying to understand the dialectical relationship between “fake news” as satirical truth-telling and “fake news” as blatant disinformation. In other words, the opposite of an “alternative fact” is not a “real truth,” but a satirical one—or, what the comedian Stephen Colbert has defined as “truthiness”: the fact that you “don’t think with your head” but that you “know with your heart.” For example, The Washington Post recently reported on “The Surprising Number of American Adults Who Think Chocolate Milk Comes from Brown Cows.” In addition to revealing the infiltration of serious journalism by satirical strategies, this headline announces a problem to which the article itself has no solution, since, evidently, those magical-thinking Americans are presumably not also WaPo readers. In other words, the line or network between the fact-checked press and these “16.4 million milk-drinking Americans” has been fatally severed, beyond journalistic repair. Humor, in contrast, is profoundly intersubjective; the resounding laughter of the satirical comedian is much harder to ignore than the cold hard logic of a news article that fails to appear on your Facebook timeline or in your Twitter feed. Laughter reverberates, both psychologically and socially, in a way that has vivid epistemological ramifications for an epoch defined by the crisis of truth and the failures of democratic governance.
To Be or Not to Be gives us insight into the many unresolved, unresolvable contradictions of our own political moment and media climate. Again, being-as-survival in this film hinges on becoming another through successful impersonation: the play-actor’s approximation of “truthiness.” As the play-within-the-film’s producer, Mr. Dobosh, complains to the troupe in the opening sequence, when he is accusing the actor Bronski of failing to impersonate Hitler, “I don’t know, it’s not convincing. To me he’s just a man with a little mustache.” Another actor comments: “But so is Hitler!” (Hitler is just a man with a little mustache.) As it turns out, one little mustache can make all the difference in the world—if not ultimately determine the political fate of the entire world. In fact, there are no fewer than twenty-seven false beards and mustaches in this film (we’ve counted), and the narrative climax itself almost explodes as the result of a misplaced hairpiece when Joseph Tura loses his fake mustache through the open window of Hitler’s moving automobile. As several students demonstrated in their final group project for “Comedy: Text and Theory,” the evils of the Trump Administration might very well one day be vanquished through the farcical subterfuge of a ham actor’s fake comb-over.
As much as this film thematizes existential issues of death and destruction, it also centers on the problem of modern social identity—of ceasing to be oneself while becoming overtaken by a double or doppelganger. The web of character impersonations in the film gets so tangled and complex that it is a pedagogical exercise in itself to ensure that students are able to follow the plot. In one semi-successful attempt, I challenged my students to compare phony characters to “fake news” stories, or, alternatively, to celebrity personas. The latter prompt drew more bidders. In one student’s account, Joseph Tura (the bad Hamlet actor) was Robert Pattinson (the moody vampire from Twilight), and Maria Tura (his more talented but adulterous wife) was Kristen Stewart (who plays Bella in Twighlight, also a moody teenager who resists social conformity by falling in love with a blood-sucking vampire). I don’t really get it, but most of the students in the class seemed to agree that this was a very good analogy. Perhaps its wisdom is revealed in an early line by Maria Tura, who chastises her husband for his jealous possessiveness, as only she can put it: “Whenever I start to tell a story, you finish it. If I go on a diet, you lose the weight! If I have a cold, you cough!! And if we should ever have a baby, I’m not so sure I’d be the mother.” Joseph’s response aptly turns the table on Maria’s word play: “I’m satisfied to be the father.” (Fun fact: Lubitsch himself had been cuckolded by not one, but two wives when he made this film.)
As the viewer knows, Maria is indeed cheating on her husband with the Polish bomber pilot, Stanislav Sobinski. Moreover, unlike in almost any other Hollywood film from this era, in which unfaithful wives are routinely punished and morally censored for their sexual transgressions, Maria is neither condemned nor even corrected for her extra-marital affairs. Instead, she is allowed to atone for her infidelity through playacting. She plays the part of the unfaithful wife with two men whom she has no intention of sleeping with, first pretending to be seduced first by a Nazi Professor named Siletski, and then by Siletski’s Nazi colleague, Colonel Erhardt (“Concentration Camp Erhardt”). The authenticity of Maria’s fake infidelity puts nothing less than the future of Poland’s existence at stake. Again, the only way for these actors to reconcile the multiple lives that they and their countries are leading is through the political theater of comedic impersonation. This chain of assumed roles and identities is farcically relentless and relentlessly farcical: Bronski impersonates Hitler; Tura impersonates Colonel Erhardt to fool Professor Siletski, but then reveals his true identity due to his uncontrollable jealousy about his wife’s affair with the Polish resistance fighter, Stanislav Sobinski (whose name itself is a play on words, on that of the famous Russian theater director, Stanislavski); so Sobinski must kill the real Siletski, causing Tura then to change costumes once more from impersonating Colonel Erhardt, to himself assuming the identity of Professor Siletski.
If you haven’t followed all of that yet, I will give you the same cheat sheet that I share with my students. First, Tura impersonates Erhardt to fool Siletski, but Siletski is unfooled and figures out the ruse, causing Sobinski then to kill Siletski, which obligates Tura to take on the role of Siletski himself. In fact, Tura goes from impersonating Colonel Erhardt before Siletski, to impersonating Professor Soletski before the real Colonel Erhardt, who comically turns out to have the exact same personality as Tura’s impersonation of him. They both marvel, “So they really call me ‘Concentration Camp Erhardt??!!!’”
However, each of these complex guises threatens to unravel entirely, when the Nazis discover the dead corpse of the real Siletski in the Polish actors’ theater. By exposing the masquerade, Siletski’s corpse nearly derails the entire political plot: to free Poland from Nazi occupation—NEARLY. Poland can still be saved if (and only IF) Tura can convince Erhardt that he is the true Siletsky, and that it is the dead body that’s the bad double.
Speaking of fake hairpieces, Tura achieves this impossible feat by shaving off the corpse’s beard and then replacing it with a fake prop beard, which Tura just happens to have on his person. Thus, when Erhardt attempts to expose the farce, instead of removing the actor Tura’s real-fake beard, he instead is manipulated into ripping off the real Siletski’s fake-fake beard. The real Siletski appears to be the fake, while Joseph Tura successfully defends the authenticity of his impersonation. As Rawitch later remarks, “What have you to say for yourself now? Here is a man with a beard, and you didn’t even pull it!” And just to explain why the real Siletski’s beard is a fake-fake beard: it’s because this beard was never his own beard. Tura has shaved off the real Siletski’s actual beard, replacing it with a fake stage beard, thus making this beard, when applied to Siletski’s now dead body, a fake-fake beard: doubly fake because it is a substitute for a real beard that actually existed at one point on Siletski’s face.
In the end, Bronski and Tura, in costume as Hitler and Hitler’s head guard, race to the rescue to save Maria from rape and sexual assault by Concentration Camp Erhardt. However, Tura, ironically (in a great twist of dramatic irony), does not have the mustache to pull off this husbandly heroism. Again, he’s lost his fake mustache through the window of Hitler’s moving automobile. Tura, as we know, has spent the better part of the film stewing in jealous suspicion and hurt pride about having been repeatedly cuckolded by Sobinski. To add insult to injury, the young pilot has disruptively walked out in the middle of every single one of Tura’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquies, in order to meet up with Tura’s wife for a regular rendez-vous in her dressing room. Yet again, Tura fails to appear on the scene of Maria’s seduction.
The only hope remaining to save Maria from sexual assault (and Poland from Nazi Occupation) is Bronski, the failed Hitler impersonator from the opening sequence. Indeed, when Bronski first enters the play-within-the-film, he is such a ham that he absurdly heils himself. “Heil myself!” he declares, after every other character on-stage has dutifully heiled Hitler. Beyond chewing up the scenery (i.e., overacting), Bronski exposes the very fundamental gap between one’s own identity and its plausible impersonation. Really, we are all playacting various versions of ourselves all the time, and the Polish actors in this Lubitsch farce are no exceptions. Yet, Hitler is unique, because he is an authoritarian sovereign: this is the contradiction driving Hitler’s status as the ultimate object of impersonation in this film. Whom does Hitler heil?
This brings us back to the central question that I always emphasize to my students when teaching this film: CAN THE POLISH ACTOR BRONSKI SUCCESSFULLY IMPERSONATE THE NAZI DICTATOR ADOLF HITLER? It turns out that he doesn’t have to—Hitler is so notoriously iconic that his impersonation is more convincing when understated. Therefore, in order for Erhardt to take the bait, Bronski must resist playing the ham: a non-kosher metaphor for overacting, of which many of the actors in this film are very guilty.
What is a ham? 1) “Ham” refers to the meat from the upper part of a pig’s leg, salted and dried, or smoked; 2) “Ham” is a derogatory term for “an excessively theatrical actor.” To impersonate Hitler, Bronski must conceal all signs of his theatrical excess, which basically means resisting his impulse to heil himself. In the end, Bronski’s performance at least fools Erhardt, who shudders in horror at the idea of having almost cuckolded the Führer.
However, the deception continues into the final scene, when Joseph Tura, now escaped to Scotland with the rest of the gang, has the chance to play Hamlet one last time—victoriously, in Shakespeare’s homeland. Tura launches into his “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy. Meanwhile the camera cuts to the audience, invoking Tura’s paranoid gaze as he stands watch and monitors his own spectators. Yet again, Tura’s fateful monologue is interrupted, this time not by Sobinski, who remains quietly seated and respectfully attentive, but by another young man, presumably a British soldier. And so the film ends, with the Nazi crisis resolved but the marriage plot still in shambles.
I teach this film not just because I love it (though I do), but because it inspires me to rethink a very familiar text through my students’ shared cultural references and weighing social concerns. In recent years, I have found it increasingly difficult and often extremely tedious to teach to the canon: Alfred Hitchcock and the gendered gaze; John Ford and the cinematographic ideological apparatus; Orson Welles and the complexity of narrative visual form; and so forth. But it doesn’t have to be that way. No matter how canonical the film or ingrained the methodology, there are always new possibilities for teaching to the present—not as presentism, but through a dynamic confrontation between the specters of film history and the unfolding matters of the moment at hand.
Maggie Hennefeld is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her book, Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes, is forthcoming from Columbia UP (March, 2018), and her articles and criticism have appeared in journals including differences, Discourse, Film History, Screen, and Camera Obscura. She is also the co-editor of a special issue of Feminist Media Histories on “Gender and Comedy,” and co-editor of two forthcoming book volumes, The Abject Objection (Duke UP) and Unwatchable (Rutgers UP).
 Bosley Crowther, “The Screen: To Be or Not to Be,” The New York Times, March 7, 1942, 13.
 “An Artistic Blunder by Lubitsch,” Times of London, April 30, 1942, 6.
 Philip Hartung, “To Be or Not to Be Laughed At,” Commonweal, March 13, 1942, 531.
 Caitlin Dewey, “The Surprising Number of American Adults Who Think Chocolate Milk Comes from Brown Cows,” The Washington Post (June 15, 2017). <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/06/15/seven-percent-of-americans-think-chocolate-milk-comes-from-brown-cows-and-thats-not-even-the-scary-part/?utm_term=.249c07043317>