“If you tickle us, do we not laugh?”: The evolution of the Jewish identity in the films of Ernst Lubitsch

Clara--Alexander_Binder_-_Ernst_Lubitsch_um_1920  “Ernst Lubitsch, Deutsches Theater, Berlin.” The title card striates to the point of near-illegibility. “Der Darsteller der Titelrolle.” It’s 1914, and the star of Der Stolz der Firma (The Pride of the Firm) is only 22 years old. The camera catches him smiling, stage left. As the opening credits roll, he turns gives the audience a long, toothy grin. With his thin face and large, intense eyes, the effect is mildly alarming—a nebbish, Semitic B-movie vampire. The film was a smash hit, though it hasn’t aged as gracefully as his more mature work. The vaudevillian humor and close, choppy cinematography seem out of place in a Lubitsch picture. That’s understandable, for such an early film. What’s more surprising is its overt Jewishness.

Lubitsch plays a stock character from his time at the Deutsches Theater: a promising young employee at a women’s clothing concern. Most of his early films are set in the world of garment manufacturing in early 20th century Germany, an industry dominated by Jews. It’s a career path that, as the son of a Berlin tailor, he had only recently abandoned for the stage. There’s a clear semi-autobiographical element to characters with names like Abramowsky, Rosenthal, Pinkus, and Katz—clever, womanizing social climbers so steeped in stereotype that the films have been accused of anti-Semitism. In keeping with Weimar-era fears of ‘perverse’ Jewish male sexuality, his Abies and Sallys pursue gentile women. Most of them rise in social class, and all of them use cunning to get ahead. It’s never enough to hide their origins completely—not that it would have been possible for Lubitsch, whose face was featured on a series 1935 propaganda posters bearing the legend “The Archetypal Jew”. As for any ambitious Jew in Weimar Berlin, the odds are against them, and success requires a certain facility for acting.

By 1915, Lubitsch was directing, and in 1919, he’d long since perfected the formula. Sally Meyer, the protagonist of Meyer aus Berlin, has his own company, a beautiful non-Jewish wife, and the time to pursue another young woman on the side. He blunders through—if never quite into—goyische high-society. In one bungling attempt to assimilate, Sally visits a sophisticated, modern ski resort wearing Lederhosen. He’s a marked outsider—obviously nouveau riche, and even more obviously Jewish. But as he gClara--TB6leefully (and literally) pushes, kicks, and shoves his way past a succession of even more hapless suit-clad suitors, one can’t help wanting him to upend the social order. It’s an impressive trick to play on a Weimar audience. His behavior may be exaggerated to the point of camp, but one can’t help but feel that Sally is in on the joke.

Whatever his humor’s moral value, it catapulted Lubitsch to prominence in Weimar cinema. After his early successes in 1916 and 1917, he quickly began to branch out. Meyer aus Berlin was the last of the “Sally” films. He’d achieved wide acclaim for his both his sophisticated comedies and sweeping historical dramas when he left Berlin for Hollywood in 1922. The studios had more resources at their disposal than anything in the spare Weimar film industry, and Lubitsch continued to produce masterpieces with astonishing rapidity. In 1928, he became one of the few directors to gracefully handle the transition from silence to sound.

He’s most famous for these later comedies, which take place in a clean, warm, glittering, and almost entirely ahistorical Europe. National interest, when it features at all, is relegated to fairytale duchies with names like Sylvania or Flausenthurm, and sly nods at contemporary politics almost always refer to the financial anxiety of depression-era Americans. Trouble in Paradise, a 1932 masterpiece, is the model of Lubitsch’s easy internationalism. His protagonists, a pair of supremely confident tricksters burdened by no particular national origin, jaunt between capitals and into new identities as carelessly as they carry out sleight of hand. Their Paris is only aesthetically distinct from Venice or Vienna, Budapest or Berlin. It’s all part of the same bright, borderless European fantasy, populated by romantic aristocrats, rich widows, and charming adulterers.

For all his blithe indifference to geography, Lubitsch’s cosmopolitan inclinations are those of a German Jew. His community’s ideological roots go back to late 18th century Berlin—the Haskalah and the German Enlightenment. It was the era of the rational moral agent and unshakeable belief in the perfectibility of humankind through moral education—ideas that transcended religion, nationality, and culture. For intellectuals, airily disclaiming national identification became a point of pride.

While Kant theorized on perpetual peace, Moses Mendelssohn began to present Judaism to the German public as a religion of reason. His passionate defense of religious pluralism in Jerusalem was well received by gentiles—Kant called it “irrefutable”—but his denial of rabbinic authority divided Jews. His Jewish supporters, largely drawn from a tiny upper class, wholeheartedly embraced his ideal of enlightened universalism. The primacy of intellect over nationality, race, or tradition gave them a first real chance for equality with their German peers. After German-speaking Jews were emancipated, in the first few decades of the nineteenth century, they wholeheartedly embraced contemporary concepts of rational self-perfection. Judaism, after all, was reasonable and it was through reason that they would transcend their differences. They embraced Kant and searched for their own identity in Goethe. A core of assimilated Jewish upper class clung to the ideals of the Enlightenment long after ordinary Germans had abandoned them. For them, to be German meant, paradoxically, to be universal.

Imprints of the world that produced these values are evident in many twentieth-century German Jewish writers. There are traces of the Haskalah in Franz Kafka and Lion Feuchtwanger, but their most obvious proponent is Stefan Zweig. It would be a mistake to read Lubitsch too closely back into the tradition. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he never shied away from Jewishness (in the ethnocultural sense, that is, as distinct from Judaism). He wasn’t a real Maskil so much as what the Soviets would later condemn as a “rootless cosmopolitan”, unattached to any particular class or nationality and thus able to move effortlessly between them.

It would also be a mistake to divorce Lubitsch’s vision entirely from that of his more politically cosmopolitan peers, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Haskalah. His comedies form a complex network of permutations of the same set of similar plots and stock characters, playing with the idea of universal archetype. His settings resemble Zweig’s more closely than perhaps those of any other author. (It’s no coincidence that when Wes Anderson started work on The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film based on Zweig’s writing, he looked to Lubitsch first for visual inspiration). Zweig was a true post-Enlightenment thinker, a self-declared “citizen of Europe”. Lubitsch adopted the aesthetic, but never the ideology. His most famous “European” films were made in the United States. The refusal to delve too deeply into local culture indicates a certain American sensibility—the outsider looking in. Of course, the outside view is also classically, perhaps stereotypically, Jewish.

It is perhaps surprising, then, that no explicitly Jewish characters appear in any of Lubitsch’s films from 1919 until 1942. To Be or Not to Be, a fast-paced comedy starring Jack Benny (né Benny Kubelsky) and Carole Lombard as the principals of a theater company in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, was the first Hollywood film to address the situation of Jews in Eastern Europe without dissimulation or allegory. Lubitsch dances around the Studio-enforced taboo on presenting the war against Hitler as a Jewish cause, constantly reminding the audience of the stakes while never—with one notable exception—placing them center stage.

The plot begins the cast of the Polski Theater rehearsing for a play called Gestapo. The Polish government blocks the play’s performance just before opening night. “It might offend Hitler,” the cast is told by a pair of apologetic censors. (Tura: “Well, wouldn’t that be something”). The Polski puts on their stock production of Hamlet, and Hitler proceeds to invade Poland. The decision to censor Gestapo is presented as cowardly and futile, as is—by implication—the failure of American filmmakers to confront Nazism directly. Censorship couldn’t stop Lubitsch, and it doesn’t stop the Polski Company, who use the costumes from Gestapo as part of an elaborate plot to impersonate Nazi officers and stop a list of members of the Polish resistance from falling into enemy hands. Symbolically, the show goes on.

The film actually opens in a Gestapo headquarters—Jack Benny’s father famously walked out after the first minute on hearing his son shout “Heil Hitler”. The camera pulls out to the Polski stage after Bronski, small-name actor with an improbable resemblance to the Führer, tries to ad-lib a joke: “Heil Myself”. The chaos that predictably ensues is a commentary on the film as much as the play. Both ask if humor is ever an appropriate response horror on the scale of the Third Reich. When Dobosh, the director, reprimands Bronski, he might as well be addressing us. His criticism reads like some of the film’s more humorless reviews. “This is a serious play,” he remonstrates. “A realistic drama! It is a document of Nazi—” Here, he’s interrupted by Maria Tura in a silky ball gown, which she intends to wear for the concentration camp scene. Like it or not, humor takes the day. It’s the Jew, Greenberg, who defends Bronski’s one-liner and Maria’s unintentionally comic sartorial choices. He shakes his head and smiles slightly—“After all, it would get a terrific laugh.”


Greenberg, the silver screen ambassador of European Jewry, is a perpetual spear-carrier in the Polski ensemble. He’s played by Felix Bressart, a Lubitsch casting regular with sad eyes and a soft Yiddish accent. Gentle and resigned, he bears little resemblance to the manic, grasping tricksters of the milieu films. Instead, he defies archetype, defiantly gentle and firmly unapologetic. However much he loves a good laugh, he’s never relegated to comic relief—the usual fate of the stock Jew. (Lubitsch, in an editorial: “I had made up my mind to make a picture with no attempt to relieve anybody from anything at any time”). Much like Lubitsch himself, Greenberg inhabits his identity with wry self-awareness. (To another actor: “Mr. Rawitsch, what you are, I wouldn’t eat.” There’s a pause. Rawitsch: “How dare you call me a ham!”). In their hands, humor is more than a defense mechanism. It provides a sense of scale and sanity, an affirmation of hope in the face of the hopelessly absurd.

Greenberg’s greatest ambition is to play Shylock. Characteristically Lubitsch, it’s a small detail of surprising depth. The desire to star in a Shakespeare play is also the desire for a place in the European literary and cultural tradition for which Shakespeare is a standard-bearer. And it’s not enough for him to have a shot at stardom: Greenberg wants to stand in the spotlight as a Jew. Shylock is a rare example of ethnic caricature from an author so frequently praised for his command of universal human nature. He’s a cheap appeal to violently anti-Semitic stereotypes; even so, it’s difficult for the Jewish reader to dislike him. Shakespeare’s talent, fortunately, outstrips his bigotry. The rare moments where Shylock is humanized—most famously his “if you prick us” monologue, which Greenberg quotes several times throughout the film—are too compelling. Shylock is the most important archetypal Jew in the western canon. Hateful or not, he’s human—loudly and insistently—and he’s ours.

For Greenberg, the role means more than personal fulfillment. It’s a chance to read Jews back into the tradition on our own terms. His goal is another thematic link between To Be or Not to Be and Lubitsch’s earliest films, in which he forces his audience to relate on a human level to even the most stereotypical Jewish characters. Unlike the Sally films, To Be or Not to Be does not have a Jewish protagonist. As a film about contemporary politics in 1942, it couldn’t. In terms of total screen time, Greenberg is only a minor character. But Lubitsch gives him the most important scene.

It’s the Polski Company’s escape from Warsaw, covered by an elaborate distraction staged for the benefit of the assembled upper echelons of the Nazi establishment. The company in full SS uniform, featuring Bronski as Hitler, break into their theater during a play, with the real Fuhrer in the audience. There, they’re attacked by Greenberg, playing a desperate assassin. Pinned between two very real SS guards, he finally gets the chance to deliver his monologue in full. “Have we not eyes,” he yells, with unfeigned anguish. “Have we not hands, organs, senses, dimensions, affections, passions?” The camera moves in, centering Greenberg’s face. At “do we not revenge,” he lunges for Bronski, and is promptly lead away by a pair of Polski “officers”. It’s the most serious moment in an otherwise very funny film, and his unambiguous heroism stands out all the more for it. The improbable plan is a success, but when the rest of the cast is safely deposited in England, Greenberg is conspicuously absent. His last appearance is at the Polski theater, being led away, defeated, between the two guards. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t have survived, but Lubitsch refuses to end the film with false optimism. Polish Jews are not an allegory for Lubitsch, hopeful or otherwise. They are very real, and very much in danger.

To Be or Not to Be reinforces the connection drawn in Lubitsch’s earliest films, between Jewishness and the necessity of disguise. That Lubitsch’s recognizably Jewish features made real disguise impossible is treated as a joke in 1916. Not so its analogue in 1942. Omer Bartov, a prominent critic and scholar of Eastern European Jewish history and culture, called the film “an endless masked ball in which the representatives of the Master Race and their allegedly subhuman subjects can never be told apart. Lubitsch thus slams directly into the rhetoric of essential difference, whereby the external appearance of human beings reveals their value and thus determines the manner in which they ought to be treated.” Bartov’s defense is frequently cited by critics who want to defend Lubitsch from accusations of insensitivity. They’re right to do so, but for entirely wrong reasons. The argument ignores a key detail, the exception that proves the rule: no one would ever mistake Greenberg for a gentile. Great acting may be self-effacing, but the Polski crew are hardly great actors. Lubitsch mocks his Nazi character’s cruelty, small-mindedness, and blind obedience to authority. But for all their slapstick incompetence, he never makes light of the horrifying superficiality with which they identify their victims. Lubitsch’s moral strength is in his particularism. He understands some differences cannot be hidden, all the more because they should never need to be.

To Be or Not to Be is not hopeful. It was made at a time when hope would have been disingenuous. Its moral understanding of the Holocaust is more sophisticated than almost any “serious” film from the period. Lubitsch isn’t an Enlightenment-era universalist, even if he likes the look. His real moral strength is in his unconditional acceptance of individual variance. Greenberg’s willingness to play to stereotype only makes it more obvious by how much he transcends it. Lubitsch’s long experience helped him to convey a delicate distinction: Greenberg is not a human being before he is a Jew; he is a human being and a Jew. Lubitsch’s final statement on Jewish identity is that it need not justify itself to its audience.

Works Cited

Bartov, Omer. The “Jew” in Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

Mosse, George L. German Jews Beyond Judaism. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Rosenberg, Joel. “Shylock’s Revenge: The Double Vanished Jew in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be.Prooftexts, 16:3 (1996): 209-244.

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