Theodor Adorno turned around Benedetto Croce’s patronizing historicist question about “what is dead and what is alive in Hegel’s dialectic.” If Hegel is really alive as a thinker, then the question to be raised today is the opposite one: “how do WE TODAY stand in the eyes of Hegel?” Exactly the same holds for Ernst Lubitsch. The question is: “How would our contemporaneity appear in the eyes of Lubitsch?” Therein resides the actuality of Lubitsch: while, of course, rejecting with disgust populist neo-racism, he would have immediately perceived also the falsity of its opponent, the politically-correct moralism, clearly seeing their hidden complicity. Lubitsch would have been appalled to notice how the perverse pleasures of obscenities, irony even, have moved to the Right, while the Left is more and more caught in pathetic, ascetic, puritan moralism.
So how would Lubitsch counteract this tendency? Through comic indirectness. But does this work? After the extent of the Nazi atrocities became known to the public, Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, as well as Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, were both criticized for downplaying the horrors of Nazism by way of making comedy out of it. Chaplin himself said that, if he were to know of the horror of concentration camps, he would never have shot his film. However, the situation is much more complex and ambiguous. Isn’t it that, in a tragedy, victims retain a minimum of dignity, which is why, when horror crosses a certain line, to portray it in a tragedy is a blasphemous downplaying of its extent?
In Auschwitz (or in a gulag camp), victims were to such an extent deprived of their human dignity that they can no longer be perceived as tragic heroes; instead, a certain mode of comedy enters the fray. No wonder that some of the best films about concentration camps are comedies. However, Lubitsch would have rejected the final sentimental turn of some of them which spoils it all, as is the case with Benigni’s La vita è bella. When the film’s hero (played by Benigni himself) and his small son are arrested and taken to Auschwitz, he concocts for his son a story: their stay in Auschwitz is just part of a big competition, they are free to leave whenever they want but if they endure to the end a big reward is awaiting them… All one has to do to see what is wrong with the film is to make a simple mental experiment: to imagine the same film with one change, where, at the end, the father would have learned that his son knew all the time where he was, in a concentration camp, and that he just pretended that he believed in his father story to make life easier for his father. One can easily visualize the scene in which, without any words, father and son just exchange glances which attest to the fact that they both know about the other’s knowledge. This mutual recognition would come as close as possible to an attestation of true love.
So, as for comedy, let us turn to Primo Levi who, in If this is a man, describes the dreadful “selekcja,” the survival examination in the camp: each prisoner has to run naked in front of the SS doctor who, in the fraction of a second, decides his fate: fit enough to continue to work or gas chamber. Is there not something properly COMIC in the ridiculous spectacle to appear strong and healthy, to attract for a brief moment the indifferent gaze of the doctor? Here, comedy and horror coincide: imagine the prisoners practicing their appearance, trying to hold head high and chest forward, walking with a brisk step, pinching their lips to appear less pale, exchanging advices on how to impress the doctor; imagine how a simple momentary confusion of cards or a lack of attention of the doctor can decide my fate… In his Aesthetics, Hegel opposes to the subjective humor of Romantic irony (a subject who makes fun of everything to assert his superiority) what he calls “objective humor”, humorous reversals inscribed into the horror reality itself. Is not the scene described by Levi one of objective humor?
Should then we be really surprised that one of the jokes from Sarajevo, when the city was under siege (and, due to Serb bombing, the supply of gas was often cut off), was: “What’s the difference between Auschwitz and Sarajevo? In Auschwitz, they at least never run out of gas.” Or what about the cruel joke popular among the survivors of the Srebrenica massacre? (To understand this joke, one has to remember that, decades ago, when one went to a butcher to buy some beef, the butcher usually asked “With bones or without?” – bones were added to make the beef soup taste better.) After the war, a refugee returns from Germany to Srebrenica and wants to buy a piece of land there to build a house, so he asks a friend about the price of land, and the friend answers: “It depends. Do you want it with or without bones?” This is how you deal with the trauma which cannot yet be properly mourned and symbolized – you turn it into a joke. There is nothing disrespectful in this; on the contrary, such jokes imply the awareness that the memory is still too hot to apply to it the process of mourning.
Along similar lines, is a story told to me by Wolf Biermann, worthy of Ehrhardt from To Be or Not to Be? In early 90s, he met with some green political groups somewhere in East Germany; among them there were some neo-Nazi ecologists, and when Biermann reproached them for their sympathy for Hitler, he got a shocking reply: “No, we are deeply critical of Hitler. True, he did some good things, like getting rid of the Jews, but he also did many horrible things, like destroying forests to build the highways…” (One can note how this critique turns around the usual defense of Hitler: “True, he did some horrible things like killing the Jews, but he also did some good things like building highways and making trains run on time!”)
Lubitsch’s approach has a deep ontological foundation. In one of the most efficient jokes in Lubitsch’s absolute masterpiece To Be Or Not to Be, the Polish actor Josef Tura impersonates Colonel Ehrhardt of the Gestapo in a conversation with a high-level Polish collaborator. In (what we took as) a ridiculously exaggerated way, he comments on rumors about himself “So they call me Concentration-Camp-Ehrhardt?” and accompanies his words with a vulgar laughter. A little bit later, Tura has to escape and the real Ehrhardt arrives; when the conversation again touches rumors about him, he reacts in exactly the same way as his impersonator, i.e., in the same ridiculously-exaggerated way… The message is clear: even Ehrhardt himself is not immediately himself, he also imitates his own copy or, more precisely, the ridiculous idea of himself. While Tura acts him, Ehrhardt acts himself. Could we not say exactly the same for Donald Trump who acts himself? (Incidentally, we get here a perfect example of the Hegelian distinction between subjective and objective humor: Tura playing Ehrhardt in an exaggerated way is subjective humor, with Tura making fun of Ehrhardt, while Ehrhardt enacting the same exaggeration is objective humor, humor inscribed into the object itself.)
All this does not mean that Lubitsch is a postmodern cynical ironist whose premise is that, since everything is mediated and indirect so that each of us plays him- or herself, there is true love, just not in some Romantic sphere above the comic indirectness. We have to learn to locate it in the middle of all these comical confusions. If there is a couple of true and permanent love in Lubitsch, a model of ideal marriage, it is the couple of Josef and Maria Tura (Joseph and Mary, THE ultimate couple!) in To Be or Not to Be: Maria is all the time flirting around and cheating on him, while Josef is intolerably self-centered and convinced of his greatness, but as such, they are totally inseparable, one cannot even imagine their divorce. Say, it is totally excluded that his wife would drop him and decide to live with the pilot with whom she cheats on him.
But, again, does this fact also not point to the limit of Lubitsch’s approach for us today? We more and more experience how what was for Lubitsch still a joke is now simply enacted in real (political and ideological) life. Recall Ehrhardt’s legendary quip “We do the concentrating, Poles do the camping”. Could not today’s manager advocating the politics of austerity say something similar? “We do the politics, ordinary people do the austerity.” Maybe, Lubitsch type of jokes only work when we still have the liberal hypocrisy to mock. But what about our era when power exerts itself brutally, dropping the liberal-humanitarian-democratic mask? One is almost tempted to say: bring us back this hypocritical mask!
However, Lubitsch would have been aware that such a direct “dropping the masks” is always fake. In the “revolutionary” 1960s, it was fashionable to assert perversion against the compromise of hysteria: a pervert directly violates social norms, he does openly what a hysteric only dreams about or articulates ambiguously in his/her symptoms. In other words, the pervert effectively moves beyond the Master and his Law, while the hysteric merely provokes her Master in an ambiguous way which can also be read as the demand for a more authentic real Master… Against this view, Freud and Lacan consistently emphasized that perversion, far from being subversive, is the hidden obverse of power: every power needs perversion as its inherent transgression that sustains it. Recall the debates on torture. Was the stance of the US authorities not something like: “Torture is prohibited, and here is how you do a water-boarding.”? This is how armies function. I remember a similar incident from my military service. One morning, the first class was on international military law, and among other rules, the officer mentioned that it is prohibited to shoot at parachutists while they are still in the air, i.e., before they touch ground. In a happy coincidence, our next class was about rifle shooting, and the same officer taught us how to target a parachutist in the air (how, while aiming at it, one should take into account the velocity of his decent and the direction and strength of the wind, etc.). When one of the soldiers asked the officer about the contradiction between this lesson and what we learned just an hour before (the prohibition to shoot at parachustists), the officer just snapped back with a cynical laughter: “How can you be so stupid? Don’t you understand how life works?” Such a procedure of directly and openly enacting what the law prohibits is what characterizes perversion. The standard wisdom tells us that perverts practice (do) what hysterics only dream about (doing), i.e., “everything is allowed” in perversion, a perverts openly actualizes all repressed content. And, nonetheless, as Freud emphasizes, nowhere is repression as strong as in perversion, a fact more than confirmed by our late-capitalist reality in which total sexual permissiveness causes anxiety and impotence or frigidity instead of liberation.
So, back to Lubitsch, what if his famous indirectness is sustained by the same insight into how the perverse direct enactment of the repressed content equals the strongest repression? It is precisely when we appear to open ourselves up to the dirtiest fantasies of our mind that the truly traumatic point remains repressed. However, isn’t Lubitsch’s indirectness also conditioned by the Hays Code censorship? Adorno wrote somewhere that a really good film would follow all the rules of Hays Code, although not in order to obey the law but out of an immanent necessity. This is what Lubitsch is doing.
Sometimes, real life catches up with Lubitsch, staging his plot in a way which pushes things a little bit further. The basic situation of Shop around the Corner occurred in real life in (of all places) Sarajevo in mid-1990’s, just after the siege of the city. A young married couple was in a crisis, the husband and wife got bored with each other, and in order to revitalize their emotional life, each of them gets engaged in internet flirting with an anonymous partner, exchanging dreams with him or her, etc. Since, in both cases, it appears that each of the two found an ideal partner, they both decide to meet in reality, and establish how they will recognize each other (a book in hand, the color of a hat). When they meet in a cafeteria, they are shocked to discover that they dated each other, husband and wife… So what is the lesson of this coincidence? Did it lead them to discover the inner harmony of their dreams and thus made them stay together with a deeper understanding? I think Lubitsch would be more inclined to see such a proximity of inner dreams as a bad omen, and would predict that they will run away from each other in horror.