47 FILMS: 9. TO BE OR NOT TO BE

In our continuing series of 47 Films to see before you’re murdered in your dreams, we look at Ernst Lubitsche’s magnificent To Be or Not To Be.

WARSAW – People often say that GK Chesterton once said comedy is the art of saying something serious in a funny way, although if he did actually say it who knows, but nothing is said more funnily about something more serious than the heroic hilarity of Ernst Lubitsche’s To Be or Not To Be.

Released in 1942 to overwhelming critical disdain, the film tells the story of a group of Warsaw actors who resist the Nazis upon their invasion through their skills of imitation. A brilliant Jack Benny plays Joseph Tura, a vain thespian who attains heroism when it is thrust upon him, and Carole Lombard is his flirtatious wife Maria who uses the first line of her husband’s Hamlet speech as a cue for her lover to visit her backstage.

Darkness and danger are entwined in the comedy and some of the funniest jokes – ‘they call me concentration camp Ehrardt do they?’ – come from the darkest of places. Treating the Nazis with witty contempt should not be mistaken with not taking the Nazis seriously, as many contemporary critics complained. Indeed given its date and the fact that the fate of Europe was yet to be decided, Lubitsche’s film along with Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator stand as two comic acts of resistance to the most vicious farce the world has ever perpetrated on itself. 

For more of our 47 Films to see before you’re murdered in your dreams CLICK HERE.

THE MAKING OF TRIUMPH OF THE WILL

BERLIN – In the latest in our celebrated Making of… series, we look at the behind the scenes drama that went into the making of Leni Riefenstahl’s political documentary “Triumph of the Will”.

The Idea

Mountaineer and film maker Leni Riefenstahl had dreamed for years of making a film with famed comedian Charlie Chaplin. She wrote him a number of letters including this one:

Dear Herr Chaplin,

My name is Leni Riefenstahl. I am a German film director and my work includes such hits as Das Blau Licht. I’m mad keen to do a film with you and seeing that I’m German and you have more than a passing resemblance to our Fuhrer, what do you say you come over and we kick around a few ideas? Hmmm?

However, Chaplin was unresponsive and so Riefenstahl wrote a letter to the proposed subject of her film:

Heil Hitler,

My name is Leni Riefenstahl. I am a German film director and my work includes such hits as Das Blau Licht. I’m mad keen to do a film with you and seeing that we’re German and you have more than a passing resemblance to our Chaplin, what do you say you come over and we kick around a few ideas? Hmmm?

To Riefenstahl’s surprise Hitler responded immediately by telegram:

WONDERFUL IDEA STOP ALWAYS WANTED TO BE IN THE MOVIES STOP MUCH MORE FUN THAN ZE POLITICS STOP BUT IN FUTURE WRITE IN GERMAN YOU KEEP WRITING IN ENGLISH AND I WANT YOU TO STOP

Production

Leni Riefenstahl was given carte blanche and all the resources of both the Nazi Party and the German state. She could use aerial shots and miles of film footage as well as a cast of thousands of obedient fanatical extras. However, Leni was not happy as can be seen from this diary entry.

June 4th, 1934

Filming again today all day. Got home exhausted. Stopped over at the Kino to check out the rushes and I can’t make head nor tail of it. No matter what direction I give, Adolf insists on improvising his own business. He siegs away all the time and then looks stern and glares with those eyes. It’s all very well but he looks nothing like Chaplin when he’s doing that. He doesn’t have Charlie Chaplin’s lightness, nor his warmth. Plus he refuses me to film him out of uniform. I did one day with him wearing the bowler hat and walking with the cane and it was fantastic, but for some reason he felt it beneath his dignity and had the negative destroyed and shot my first AD. NOt all is lost. Speer’s set design is impeccable.

Reception

Triumph of the Will was a massive hit in Germany. Not so much in Austria until the Anschluss, it performed poorly in Poland until 1939 when it picked up and France until 1940 when it became a huge hit. Any country where the film failed to perform soon became a target for Adolph Hitler’s armies. The Riefenstahl was satisfied with the film although she rued having to abandon the Chaplin story-line for making a more straightforward film about Hitler and the Nazis.  However, she was furious when in 1940 Chaplin released The Great Dictator which she claimed was essentially her idea. She attempted to sue Chaplin but with the ongoing Second World War the legal papers were never properly served.

The Triumph of the Will was released in 1934.

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CHARLIE CHAPLIN NAZI PICTURES REVEALED

HOLLYWOOD – Following the pictures of the Queen Sieg Heiling like a (Storm) trooper, the Studio Exec have unearthed evidence that famed film director and silent movie legend Charlie Chaplin was also a closet Nazi.

Charlie Chaplin took the movie world by storm with his lovable rogue the ‘tramp’ who charmed audiences with films such as The Kid, Gild Rush, City Lights and Modern Times. However, a series of photographs recently unearthed show the diminutive British comic wearing what looks like a facsimile of Nazi uniform and saluting in a Queen Elizabeth II approved fashion.

Film historian and expert Mark Cousins (no relation to the one with the annoying voice) talked the Studio Exec through the photograph:

What we can see here is Charlie Chaplin in a later part of his career. We know he had been targeted by the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover personally for his supposed communist allegiances, something for which he refused to apologize or deny, though he was never a member of the Communist Party. There is a chance however that the pressure was telling and this might have pushed him to attend some right wing rallies as a way of evening up the score. The photograph clearly shows Nazi inspired regalia and one can only assume that the modifications to the Swastika were to avoid legal complications and provide what is known today as plausible deniability.

Did his Nazism continue or was it simply a flirtation, like David Bowie?

Soon after the photograph was taken Chaplin left the United States and it was made known that his visa application to return would be turned down. He ended up in Switzerland, a notorious safe haven for Nazis, though whether or not this was a motivation we can’t know.

Charlie Chaplin was unavailable for comment.