What are we waiting for to rewatch or watch Ernst Lubitsch’s films?
They don’t make comedies like they used to, and they have never made comedies like Ernst Lubitsch did. His comedies make us laugh by not showing, by not telling the story directly, by working out the plot along with him as we watch the film. But everything we don’t see behind the closed doors while the camera remains outside is essential. The laughs keep coming not because of physical, comical situations, but because of the wit and lightness of touch of a well crafted situation. What appears to be is of more relevance than what it is. That’s the brilliance of it all. “There is no Lubitsch plot on paper, nor does the movie make any sense after we’ve seen it. Everything happens while we are looking at the film,” said François Truffaut. His comedies don’t stay with you long after you’ve watched them. His comedies require constant reviewing, just like Hitchcock’s films. They are a reminder that movies must be experienced, not just looked at and then put aside.
But, even more importantly, Lubitsch’s comedies reinforce my own conviction which I have expressed time and again about how underrated comedy, and especially his comedy, is in the world of film and how underrated its effect is on the world. Once and for all, we should stop underestimating a comedy’s merit and power. There is that famous line in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941) when Joel McCrea’s character, after he has been mistaken for a tramp, arrested and put to work on a chain gang and he finds himself watching a comedy with the other convicts, every one of them laughing harder than the other, as if they have no worries in the world: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”
”To Be or Not to Be”, 1942
Ernst Lubitsch would take that further in 1942 with To Be or Not to Be, and Mladen Dolar makes the best argument not only for the importance of comedy in general, but about the greatness and uniqueness of this film in his essay “To Be or Not to Be? No, Thank You” from the book Lubitsch Can’t Wait. He writes about how Lubitsch made a comedy about fascism “blatantly disregarding all political correctness, and, what is more, a comedy about fascism made at the time of its steep and sinister rise, confronting its disastrous historical and political reality at the time, as it happened, rather than from the distanced privilege of hindsight.” In the bleakest moment of Europe’s history, December 1941 (also the time of Lubitsch’s shooting the film), the director gave the world the best comedy. Because he knew that “comedy is the best answer to the hour of greatest despair, the bleakest moment, the biggest catastrophe humanity has ever faced.” What other film (yes, film, because Mladen Dolar regards To Be or Not to Be as the best film ever made) has the same “stance and courage”, that “immediate engagement”, devoid of any outside pressure, political correctness and support of an entire movement of anti-Nazi propaganda movies that started to be made only after the war and not during its darkest hour? “A masterpiece of plotting where everything fits, where all elements are repeated and reused later to produce even new effects, all elements mirrored, echoed, turned upside down, twisted and double-twisted eventually creating a snowball effect.”
If all the arguments in the paragraph above don’t make you want to watch or rewatch To Be or Not to Be, a comedy that has not been and will never be equaled, and Lubitsch’s films, then I don’t know what will. Lubitsch Can’t Wait, the aforementioned book, gathers nine more essays on the films of Ernst Lubitsch by renowned authors and scholars, from Slavoj Žižek, Mladen Dolar and Robert Pfaller, and not only does it firmly establish Lubitsch as one of the most important auteurs in the history of cinema and identify the style of a Lubitsch film with the film itself, but these witty, subversive and thought-provoking writings highlight Lubitsch’s comic invention and singular understanding of love, sex, comedy, politics, and life. Because just like for Lubitsch “it’s not that love is just a game, but rather that love can and ought to be playfully erotic, and becomes a mere shadow if it loses touch with seduction and uncertainty,” tragedy and comedy are both equally part of life, but we couldn’t go through life without the laughs.
Ernst Lubitsch’s comedies should require viewing today, in this sad state of spirit of our times.
“I was tired of the two established, recognized recipes,
drama with comedy relief, and comedy with dramatic relief.
I made up my mind to make a picture with no attempt
to relieve anybody from anything, at any time…”
Ernst Lubitsch about To Be or Not to Be
Lubitsch Can’t Wait, edited by Ivana Novak, Jela Krečič and Mladen Dolar,
is published by Columbia University Press