Sunday, October 26, 2008

To Be or Not to Be: Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 Film

As some of you may know, I’m working on MRS. LIEUTENANT IN EUROPE, the sequel to MRS. LIEUTENANT. The sequel takes place in Munich, Germany, starting in September 1970 when Sharon and Robert Gold first arrive. A major theme of this second novel is what it’s like as Jews to be part of an occupation force in Germany only 25 years after the end of World War II.

Thus I read with particular interest David Propson’s October 25th Wall Street Journal article “A Bubbly Mix of Zaniness and Doom” about Ernst Lubitsch’s classic 1942 film “To Be or Not to Be.”

Propson’s article apparently was motivated by the less-than-stellar reviews for the current Broadway play based on the film. Propson says:
It would be tragic, however, if audiences mistook this misbegotten production as any reflection of Lubitsch’s sublime comedy. Recreating Lubitsch’s bubbly cocktail of zaniness and doom is a tall order: Even Mel Brooks missed the mark with his 1982 film remake. But the Broadway version travesties Lubitsch’s original, altering characters and even changing the famous ending.

The original movie is a favorite of my husband and mine. (We refused to see the remake.) I don’t want to give too much away except to say that the plot concerns a troupe of Polish Shakespearean actors in Nazi-occupied Germany who impersonate high-ranking Nazis in order to save the Polish underground. Jack Benny is the lead actor of this troupe and he is beyond hilarious.

When my husband and I first saw the film in 1971 or 1972, we and the two other American servicemen with us were the only people laughing in the theater. Where did we see this film? At a Hollywood film festival at the Munich city museum. Why the museum thought that Germans would understand the farcical humor of this film was beyond us. But the four of us couldn’t stop laughing.

If you have the opportunity to see the original film, do so. While it’s very funny, there are serious underpinnings (Lubitsch himself was a Berlin Jew who got out in time). And sometimes the most farcical films can give us food for thought.

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