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To Be or Not to Be (A Jew)

Dorian Stuber and Marianne Tettlebaum


From false moustaches that disappear and reappear to two-word phrases that arise in the most disparate of circumstances, no detail in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) is without its significance in the larger plot, and almost every detail returns at some point to great effect; indeed, details and one’s knowledge of them (or lack thereof) might be said to be the engine that drives this relentless plot forward. Details, after all, are what the troupe of Polish actors rely on to out-Nazi their Nazi tormentors. Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) uses the introductory banter of the sinister double agent Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) to pass himself off as Siletsky later on, and it is a trick with Siletsky’s moustache that ends up putting the ultimate seal of authenticity on Tura’s copy. After all, what most defines Hitler in this film is his being, as the narrator puts it, ‘the man with the little moustache’.  


In a plot in which the differences between authentic and fake and the authentically faked are so small, we are trained from the beginning to scrutinise the smallest details; the more meticulously we do so, the more we are rewarded by laughs later on. The Hitler as cheese joke (‘They named a brandy after Napoleon, they made a herring out of Bismarck, and Hitler is going to end up as a piece of cheese’ – presumably Swiss, riddled with holes) is funny the first time around but even funnier when repeated, precisely because the second time we know the ultimate punch line, the disapproval accorded the misguided Nazi who tells it.


So it is, when we are thus trained with an eye toward detail and when almost every detail resolves itself into a larger plot point, that we expect to be rewarded at every turn with some kind of closure, or, at the very least, a punch line. And the little moustache that keeps disappearing and reappearing does not disappoint. It ends up as the punch line for one of the biggest jokes of all – when the actor Bronski (Tom Dugan) appears at the end as Hitler to rescue Maria Tura (Carole Lombard) from the Nazi Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman).


So it is, too, when we are trained to look for details, that we may lose the forest for the trees. And thus it was only on our fifth or sixth viewing of the film that we noticed not another detail, but a gaping hole in the plot, something that does not return, and therefore does not resolve. We refer, of course, to the mysterious disappearance at the end of the film of its unlikely hero, the actor Greenberg (Felix Bressart).


When we last see Greenberg, he is being force-marched by two Nazi Lieutenants from the Polski Theatre where he has just challenged none other than Adolf Hitler in a passionate, insurrectionary speech based on Shylock’s famous address in Act 3 Scene 1 (‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’) of The Merchant of Venice. But the Nazis who have commandeered the theatre to celebrate Hitler’s brief visit to the occupied city do not know what we know: that the silent Hitler, the obstreperous commander who interrogates Greenberg on behalf of the Führer, and a number of the other SS uniforms – including the two who have taken Greenberg away – are really Polish actors in disguise. The staged encounter between Greenberg and his friend Bronski – a Hitler look-alike who was to have portrayed the dictator in a play that the troupe is rehearsing as the film begins – is a ruse designed to allow the troupe to escape occupied Poland for safety and glory in England.


Well, most of the troupe, anyway. Greenberg isn’t with them. The only direct allusion to his fate is Tura’s throwaway comment, in the car on the way to the airfield, that Greenberg will get to play Shylock again, ‘not in the corridor but on the stage of the Polski theatre’. Are we supposed to think that Greenberg will stay behind, even thrive, in Poland? By now we know enough about Tura to recognise that his claims, no matter how seemingly authoritative, are not especially trustworthy; after all, he is motivated almost entirely by immense self-regard. Thus his words come across as cheaply magnanimous, expressed as they are on the way to safety from a city whose future remains uncertain. No matter what Tura might think – he smugly claims, ‘Yes, we saved the Underground’ – it is likely that there will be much suffering to come in Poland before the Nazis will be defeated (if indeed they will; the tide of the war had only just begun to turn in 1942, the year of the film’s release and the year that the Nazi destruction of the Jews was at its most horrifying efficient).


Despite the relief we feel at the actors’ impending escape, then, we must ask about the price of that relief. Greenberg’s disappearance – so disquieting because so abrupt – stands as the most burdensome cost, a reminder that, when it comes to this war, there are some sorts of suffering that can neither be depicted nor resolved. This lack of resolution is surprising in a film where the plotting functions with the brilliant precision of a P. G. Wodehouse novel. One of the many pleasures of To Be or Not to Be is the way it sets its characters into desperate, seemingly intractable situations before contriving to let them escape by dint of grace, humour and wit. The elegance of the solutions is only heightened by the danger of the situations. Why, then, is there no similar resolution for Greenberg? Why can’t Lubitsch contrive a daring escape for him? Why don’t we know what happens to him?


What matters is not the answer to these questions, but the fact that they have no answer. The film is unable to tell us Greenberg’s fate; it cannot name his outcome. (1) True, he leaves his final scene in the company of two colleagues from the troupe, but it is difficult to distinguish artifice from reality at the sight of Greenberg’s exit, just as it has been difficult to distinguish artifice from reality throughout. Although we know the exit is faked, it feels ominously real. The film seems to share these reservations. The troupe’s producer, Dobosh (Charles Halton), has offered a rather dire intimation of Greenberg’s fate when he tells him, in the scene in which the actors cook up their plan to escape Poland via the faked confrontation with Hitler, that even if the actor plays his part perfectly (as he in fact does), Dobosh ‘still can’t guarantee anything’. And it is hard to think of a more dangerous place than Poland in the early years of the 1940s for anyone, especially a Jew. But the film could easily have been clear about Greenberg’s fate. Is he supposed to have died? (The film historian David Kalat thinks so.) (2) Has he fallen into the hands of the real Nazis? If so, has he been shot immediately, or has he been imprisoned and deported, perhaps to one of the extermination camps running at full speed since the decision made in a villa in Wannsee in January 1942 to exterminate, rather than ‘merely’ harass and expel, the Jews of Europe? The film has many moments of pathos amidst its humour; it would not have been out of keeping with its ethos to present or at least allude directly to Greenberg’s untimely end. Nor, conversely, would it have been difficult to offer support for Tura’s prediction about Greenberg’s destiny as an actor.


We believe the film’s lack of clarity here has everything to do with acting, for an actor is precisely what Greenberg, despite all appearances to the contrary, is not. All the real actors in the film (by which we mean both those in Dobosh’s troupe and the Nazi commanders in Poland) are allowed to separate authentic from inauthentic selves, selves from roles. But Greenberg is not. He is always ‘acting’ as himself, which is to say, as a Jew. (Greenberg experiences in heightened form the ambivalence of the verb ‘to act’, which refers both to the authenticity of doing and the falsity of acting.) Here the film enters the centuries-old debate about the mutability of the Jew, a debate in which the Nazis are only the most venomous practitioners: for them, Jews are at once essentially themselves (subhuman, vermin, etc.) and therefore immediately identifiable as such, and inherently malleable (they hide amongst the German polity, they must be rooted out, etc.), and therefore must be hunted down relentlessly. This way of thinking is a perversion of the Jewish dilemma, expressed with new urgency since the beginning of modern emancipation, that is, since the 18th century, about assimilation. Can Jews assimilate and still be identified as Jews?


1. Thus, while we find it compelling and worthy of attention, we ultimately disagree with Gerd Gemünden’s reading of Greenberg’s absence as a political statement on Lubitsch’s part about the absence of Jews in Hollywood cinema. Gemünden acknowledges the challenges the film faces in representing Greenberg’s Jewishness, but his theory about the political statement requires that we read Jewishness as something deliberately veiled by the film. Our contention is that Jewishness is not so much obscured or veiled or even absent, as it is incapable of being represented – unnamed because unnameable. See Gerd Gemünden, ‘Space out of Joint: Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be’, New German Critique, no. 89 (2003), pp. 59-80.

2. David Kalat, commentary track, To Be or Not to Be (Criterion DVD, 2013).






By opening the question of Greenberg’s fate and not resolving it, To Be or Not to Be contributes to the debate that began in the 19th century and continues to this day about the place of Jewishness in modernity. As we shall see, the film studiously refuses to name or mark Jewishness, preferring more universal names for suffering. (Typically, it says Polish whenever we might expect it to say Jew.) Yet that very elision only makes the identity it erases more powerful. Thus Greenberg is unmistakably Jewish even though the film never names him as such. This strange legibility, at once surreptitious and overt, is the film’s way of pointing to the void at the heart of the political events it describes, the forcible, catastrophic uprooting and destruction of centuries of Jewish life in Europe.


If no one, neither Greenberg himself nor anyone else, ever calls Greenberg a Jew, then how do we know he is one? There is his name, of course, the only overtly Jewish name in the film. There’s Bressart’s own physiognomy: he just looks Jewish. The actor was indeed Jewish, and his biography resonates poignantly with the events of the film. (Bressart made his way from Germany to Austria in 1933 and from there to the US in 1938.) Kalat notes that Bressart is billed fourth in the film’s credits, surprising given how relatively little-known the actor was at the time, though he was beloved in the Hollywood émigré community. Kalat attributes the billing to Greenberg’s role as Lubitsch’s stand-in, noting that the young Lubitsch had used the same speech by Shylock as his audition piece for Max Reinhardt’s theatre in Berlin in 1910. But if Greenberg is Lubitsch, why not be more explicit about it? After all, Lubitsch had portrayed clearly Jewish characters before, as in his short Pinkus’ Shoe Palace (1916), in which he played the schlimazel of the title. Moreover, there are other Jewish actors in To Be or Not to Be – most notably Jack Benny, born Benjamin Kubelsky – whose characters are not marked as Jewish. The match between actor and character is thus hardly determinative.


Instead, we know that Greenberg is Jewish because of something he says – or, rather, something he does not say. In other words, we know that he is Jewish because the film goes to such lengths not to say that he is. The key moment takes place during a rehearsal. When the pompous actor Rawitch (Lionel Atwill, having a hell of a time) huffs and puffs in his plummy tones about how he must wait and wait while minor actors seek to increase their roles, Greenberg says, ‘Mr Rawitch, what you are I wouldn’t eat’. Rawitch replies, ‘How dare you call me a ham’.


Here, through antithetical modes of naming, the film simultaneously expresses and elides Jewishness. Overtly, the one named is Rawitch: he is a ham. Covertly, the one named is Greenberg: he is a Jew. Yet Greenberg’s naming happens only as the inverse of Rawitch’s. In other words, the joke ostensibly tells us something about Rawitch, but it really tells us something about Greenberg. We already know Rawitch is a ham, and although there is pleasure in the subtle, even courteous way Greenberg makes the point, ultimately forcing Rawitch to indict himself, the real purpose of the exchange is to confirm Greenberg’s identity as a Jew.


Yet, tellingly, To Be or Not to Be must be roundabout in making that claim, so much so that it would be wrong to even call it a claim. Jewishness is simply not something that can be claimed or affirmed in the world of this movie, nor in the world of its making. Notice how the exchange gives at once too much and too little information. That might be a function of audience: the film does not expect its audience to know much about Jews and Judaism. More savvy viewers would not need Rawitch’s response; they would know that Jews do not eat ham, or at least are not supposed to. (Primo Levi: A Jew is one ‘who should not eat salami but eats it all the same’.) (3) But Rawitch’s reply is not just a nod to the uninformed, a casual bit of exposition. Instead it is a sign of the film’s uncertainty about how much and what it can say. In this regard, Rawitch’s reply is both necessary and superfluous.


We realise just how uncertain the film is here when we compare this joke to a later one that seems to mimic it, at least in its phrasing. Greenberg’s statement uncannily anticipates Colonel Ehrhardt’s claim about Josef Tura’s acting, made to Tura himself when he is disguised as Siletsky. Tura has repeatedly tried, to no avail, to get the various Nazis he encounters in his disguises to acknowledge ‘that great, great Polish actor, Josef Tura’. Ehrhardt is the first to admit even to having heard of Tura. He tells Tura-as-Siletsky, confidentially: ‘What he did to Shakespeare, we are doing to Poland now’. This is the statement that The New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther, in particular, objected to so strongly that he panned the film not once but twice. (4) As Gerd Gemünden observes, following Stephen Tifft, what Crowther and others unconsciously objected to in this exchange was the way the joke forces the film’s (American, middle class) audience to identify against their wishes with Nazi methods and aims. (5) (That is true only if we laugh, but it is hard not to, even though the laughter is bound to be bitter or uneasy.) Note that Ehrhardt’s joke is not clarified. There is no response on Tura’s part to match Rawitch’s ‘How dare you call me a ham’. (Nothing on the order of ‘How dare you call him a butcher’.) Ehrhardt’s joke is more elegant, as a joke. It seems Nazi violence is amenable to discourse in a way that the primary victims of that violence, the Jews, are not.





3. Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (Schocken: New York, 1984), p. 36.






4. Bosley Crowther, ‘To Be or Not to Be (1942)’, New York Times, 7 March 1942.

5. Gemünden, ‘Space Out of Joint’, p. 76.

With the exception of Siletsky, whose zeal for the Nazi cause, expressed as pure humourless calculation, is the most frightening thing in the film, Lubitsch’s Nazis all make jokes. Yet they do so uncomfortably. Perhaps that is because their jokes are often aimed at Nazism itself, as in the assertion that a man who does not smoke, drink or eat meat (like the abstemious Hitler) is not to be trusted. Whenever Nazi laughter threatens to get out of hand, it is squelched by reference to mindless obedience: a round of ‘Heil Hitler!’ quickly silences the implicit criticism of the regime.


That attitude towards humour – that its outbreaks must be immediately suppressed – contrasts with Greenberg’s, epitomised by his slogan, said approvingly of anything (a costume, a line reading, a bit of actorly business): ‘It would get a terrific laugh’. These are among the first words he says, in response to Dobosh’s criticism of a brilliant improvisation by Bronski who, playing Hitler, enters a room to a fusillade of hailing by raising his arm in a weak half-salute and quietly, straightfacedly saying, ‘Heil myself’. And they are among the last, in response to Dobosh’s question, as they plan the final ruse, whether the actors could ‘arrange for Greenberg to pop up amongst all these Nazis’. After all, as Greenberg explains, ‘A laugh is nothing to be sneezed at’.


The critical function of humour, its function as a mode of resistance, is antithetical to the deadly pompousness and obsequiousness of fascism. Even Greenberg’s expression ‘a laugh is nothing to be sneezed at’ is a triumph of ordinary modesty, a way of being in the world that does not take itself seriously. (The idiom is quite strange, really, since it is hard to imagine what it would be like not to sneeze at something: sneezing is involuntary and cannot be refused. It suggests laughter is inevitable, something the Nazis tacitly concede in their own recourse to jokes and laughter.) The idiomatic ordinariness of Greenberg’s expression combined with the softness of Bressart’s delivery – his mild European accent makes everything he says sound gentle and kind – make all the more persuasive his belief in the power of laughter as a force of the everyday, the good-natured and the powerfully critical.


In light of his insistence on laughter, then, and the hilarity of the film as a whole, it is surprising that Greenberg himself is not very funny. He does not partake in the film’s repartee, its dizzying accumulation of lines – in which, as Geoffrey O’Brien has put it, ‘Almost no line of dialogue is without a barbed secondary implication’. (6) Consider the exchange in which Maria reproaches Josef for his overbearing neediness. Anything she has he must have too: ‘If I go on a diet, you lose the weight. If I have a cold, you cough. And if we should ever have a baby I’m not so sure I’d be the mother’. We might be laughing too hard to hear Josef’s acerbic reply, ‘I’m satisfied to be the father’. In the sting of Tura’s last line we have an example of what Billy Wilder, describing the famous ‘Lubitsch touch’, his signature sophistication, called ‘a superjoke’: ‘You had a joke, and you felt satisfied, and then there was one more big joke on top of it. The joke you didn't expect’. (7)


Greenberg, however, has almost no lines of this sort. There is the joke about Rawitch, but, as we have seen, the film cannot leave it alone to do its work. More successful, because more elegant, is the gleam of daring inspiration that shoots between Greenberg and Bronski when they imagine what would happen if they dropped the corpse of Rawitch’s Claudius at the end of Hamlet. But these exceptions aside, the laughter that Greenberg believes in so strongly comes from others. Laughter, for Greenberg, must then mean something more than jokes or humour. We believe it means something like disruption, the recognition that things could be different than they are: nothing less than resistance itself. A terrific laugh is another name for revolutionary politics. That’s why ‘Heil myself’ is such a brilliant piece of improvisation. For Hitler to personalise the Nazi salute would be to acknowledge that the Nazi system, based on a fallible person, is nothing more than a leadership cult. The question of grammatical person (what others refer to in third person he must refer to in first) destabilises the entire Nazi system. What had seemed immutable and necessary is shown to be precarious and contingent.



6. Geoffrey O’Brien, ‘The Play’s the Thing’, in To Be or Not to Be (Criterion DVD booklet), pp. 4-15.



7. Billy Wilder,









It is in political terms, then, that we might understand why Greenberg can at once uphold the idea of laughter and also be so closely associated with Shylock’s highly moving, somewhat alarming, but certainly not humorous speech. The speech is Shylock’s expression of disdain for the merchant Antonio, with whom he has long had a rivalry sharpened by Antonio’s animus against him as a Jew. When Antonio’s friend Bassanio seeks a loan in order to woo an heiress, Antonio must refuse because his wealth is currently tied up in a fleet of ships returning to Venice laden with merchandise. But he offers to act as guarantor if Bassanio can find a lender. Shylock agrees to make the loan, but famously only at the cost of a pound of Antonio’s flesh should Bassanio forfeit on the debt. That repayment becomes an issue when the Venetian merchants learn that Antonio’s fleet has sunk. When one of the merchants insists to Shylock that he will surely not call in the debt and ask for the flesh (‘what’s that good for?’), the moneylender replies:




To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgrac’d me, and hinder’d me half a million; laugh’d at my losses, mock’d at my gains, scorn’d my nation, thwarted my bargains, cool’d my friends, heated mine enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction. (8)







8. William Shakespeare, The Riverside Shakespeare (Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1974), III. i. ll. 53-73, p. 268.

Interestingly, it is Bronski, not Greenberg, who first refers to Shakespeare’s character, telling his friend ‘And the day will come when you’ll play Shylock’.


‘The Rialto scene’, Greenberg replies wide-eyed. ‘Shakespeare must have thought of me when he wrote this.’ The suggestion of intentionality implied here is bemusing –how could Shakespeare have known of Greenberg? – but the phrasing is consequential. Greenberg doesn’t say, ‘Shakespeare must have thought of someone like me.’ Instead he claims direct identification between himself and the character, which makes his next line even more thought provoking. He adds, ‘It’s me’. Both Bronski and Greenberg seem straightforwardly to equate Greenberg with the part, presumably because of his Jewishness. After all, they are not similar in any other way: the gentle and likeable Greenberg is nothing like the embittered and maligned Shylock. Instead there seems to be some point of identity between the two that exceeds more superficial qualities like personality. That point can only be their shared Jewishness. When Greenberg says ‘it’s me’ (our italics) rather than, as we might expect, ‘he’s me’ he is referring to Jewishness per se.


Greenberg’s phrasing offers a subtle revision to Bronski’s initial statement. For Greenberg’s day does not come. Despite the final ruse, in which Greenberg confronts Bronski as Hitler with a version of Shylock’s speech, it would be wrong to say that Greenberg is playing Shylock. And that is not because he borrows the lines for his own purposes, but because he does not have the luxury of acting, as the others in the troupe do. Given the time and place of the film’s staging (Warsaw, 1939) and even of its production (Hollywood, 1941-2), the stakes are higher, more existential for Greenberg than for anyone else. There is a big difference between those who choose to act (Tura and all the others in the troupe) and those who have no choice but to act (Greenberg).


The only way for Greenberg to be what he is, or, for the film to represent him as he really is, is for him to play a role. What Greenberg attempts to do, then, as his phrasing here suggests (‘it’s me’), is to embody that role rather than to act it. Thus, he is in the paradoxical position of depending upon representation for embodiment, of depending upon acting to be who he really is. One must act, the film suggests, and be self-conscious about that fact, as the Theatre Polski actors are, if one is to defeat totalitarianism. (The Nazis act, too, but they believe themselves; they think their poses are real.) Whereas his fellow actors are conscious that they must play roles other than themselves in order to survive, Greenberg realises that he must play a role simply in order to be himself.


Since the middle of the nineteenth century, many Jews, certainly those in Germany and other parts of Western Europe, but even some in Eastern Europe, experimented with assimilation to the dominant culture. So successful had this assimilation been, from their point of view, that they no longer considered themselves as Jewish. That did not stop the Nazis from doing so, and in this regard the various Zionist movements of the first half of the twentieth century were right. Jews could not trust any nation to include them as full-fledged members of the national polity, no matter how well they behaved, no matter how ‘German’ or ‘Polish’ they acted. Greenberg’s disappearance at the end of the film supports those anti-assimilationist arguments, at least inasmuch as we take assimilation to be a kind of acting or false consciousness. (Clearly not the only way to think of assimilation, but the way most aligned to Lubitsch’s film.) Greenberg’s Shylock (especially in its universalism, stripped of specificity) is an assimilationist’s dream.


Yet if the basis for the unquestioned identity between actor and character is shared Jewishness, then it is significant that the film systematically removes all overt references to Jewishness in Greenberg’s Shylock speeches. The conversation between Greenberg and Bronski is shot in the accordion structure of classical Hollywood cinema, with two-shots replaced by an over-the-shoulder shot/reverse shot sequence in medium close-up that then returns to the two-shot. This staging ensures that Greenberg never has our full attention in the scene, and indeed the most striking aspect of mise en scène here is the way the physicality of Greenberg’s enunciation is expressed on the body of Bronski: the hair of his wig blows back from the force of Greenberg’s expostulation. What Greenberg says so forcefully is a version of Shylock’s speech from which all references to Jews has been removed:



Have I not eyes? Have I not hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases. If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?




‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ has been replaced by ‘Have I not eyes?’ ‘Jew’ is removed from the next sentence, as are its original final clauses, ‘healed by the same means/warmed by the same winter and summer, as/a Christian is?’ The elision of Jew and Christian makes the next sentence—‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’—confusing. Who is this ‘we’ that Greenberg is now talking about? Those who know the original might fill in the blank with ‘Jew’, as might those who only know the name Shylock (practically proverbial for a grasping, avaricious Jew). The point is not that we (think we) know how to fill in the blank; it is that there is a blank to fill in at all. As with the joke about ham, Jewishness is central to the very intelligibility of the speech, even as it is carefully removed from it.


Bronski’s response – ‘It moved me to tears’ – intimates the speech’s primary function in the film: to generate pathos, but for occupied Poland rather than for the stymied artist Greenberg, or for his people, abused in the streets, taken into the forest to be murdered, hounded into ghettos, eventually to be deported to the crematoria. That function is even more obvious the next time we hear the speech, in a montage sequence revealing first the Nazi destruction of Warsaw and then the resistance of the Polish underground. Between these halves comes a brief scene of Bronski and Greenberg shoveling the street outside the theatre. Greenberg says, to the accompaniment of mournful string music, ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?’ before breaking off, as if moved to tears by both the speech and the situation. Given the images we have just seen of destroyed buildings and of posters describing captured and murdered partisans, the referent of this ‘we’ is clearly Poland.


Poland is also at the heart of the speech’s final, most extensive and dramatic iteration, the staged encounter with Hitler. When Greenberg approaches ‘Hitler’ in the theatre corridor, he is quickly surrounded both by the other actors pretending to be Nazis as well as by many real Nazi soldiers. Tura, speaking for Bronski as Hitler, interrogates Greenberg:



Tura: How did you get here?

Greenberg: I was born here.

Tura: And what made you decide to die here?

Greenberg: Him. [He nods emphatically, contemptuously to the fake Hitler.]

Tura: What do you want from the Führer?

Greenberg: What does he want from us? What does he want from Poland? Why all this? Why? Aren’t we human? Have we not eyes? Have we not hands, organs, senses, dimensions, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, cooled and warmed by the same winter and summer? If prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not die? If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?


Here Greenberg comes closest to Shakespeare’s original. Crucially, though, the references to Jew and Christian are missing here, too. It is possible to imagine that when Greenberg asks ‘What does he want from us? What does he want from Poland?’ the pronoun and noun might have different referents. (That is, ‘us’ could mean ‘Jews.’) But the elision of religious identity from Shakespeare’s original suggests that is not the case, as does Bressart’s intonation; he emphasises ‘Poland’ in a way that makes it clear the word is synonymous with ‘us’.


In other words, even though the film hints that Greenberg is Jewish (‘What he is, I wouldn’t eat’, ‘Shakespeare must have thought of me when he wrote this’), it never says so. It never speaks the word ‘Jew’. This despite the fact that by the time of the war, Jews made up a substantial portion of the Polish population, about 10%. (Compare that to 2.1% in the US in 2012, a country with one of the largest Jewish populations in the world.) In large Polish cities like Warsaw and Lodz, Jews made up about 30% of the population. Indeed, the Jewish population of pre-war Poland was second only to New York City. (9) Yet, at the time, ‘Polish’ meant Gentile, Christian, Catholic Poland. By upholding Polish resistance, the film occludes the destruction of European Jewry.


And that occlusion is not a function of ignorance, of the idea that people in America or Europe or elsewhere had no idea what was happening to the Jews. Such claims ring hollow, especially in light of recent research confirming that there were tens of thousands of deportation and concentration camps, as well as ghettos and killing sites, across Europe, even within the German heartland, and that their existence was hardly a secret. (10) The idea that people did not know is pernicious and false. And yet it is also true: people did not want to know, did not want to think too much about where their colleagues, even friends, people who had lived amongst or near them for years, had suddenly gone. However unconsciously, To Be or Not to Be plays out a version of this knowing-but-not-knowing by pointing to, but never directly referencing, Greenberg’s Jewishness.






9. Figures from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Holocaust Encyclopedia. See


10. Eric Lichtblau, ‘The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking’, The New York Times, 1 March 2013.

In this way, we can read the film’s title and the soliloquy from Hamlet to which it refers not as a choice about whether to kill oneself, but as a description of the existential situation of Jews in the world of this film. Or, more accurately, their non-situation. For Jews can neither be in the world of this movie nor not be. The film cannot speak of them, but it cannot not speak of them either – a dilemma reflected in the actual situation of Jews in Europe during the events leading up to WWII. As political philosopher Hannah Arendt puts it, in a brilliant essay from 1943 called ‘We Refugees’, in their movement from country to country to escape persecution and their struggles to fit in, ‘we [Jews] reveal nothing but our insane desire to be changed, not to be Jews … we don’t succeed and we can’t succeed; under the cover of our “optimism” you can easily detect the hopeless sadness of assimilationists’ (11). Even the Jews themselves who most want to refuse their Jewishness are thrown back on it all the same. Arendt continues, ‘it is the history of 150 years of assimilated Jewry who performed an unprecedented feat: though proving all the time their non-Jewishness, they succeeded in remaining Jews all the same’. (12) The universalisation of the Shylock speech, the removal of any specific reference to Judaism or Jewishness, is perhaps the ultimate hallmark of the film’s Jewish sensibility.


In the same essay, Arendt distinguishes between two ways Jews responded to their increasing oppression throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, in which ‘society has discovered discrimination as the social weapon by which one may kill men even without any bloodshed’. Those who seek assimilation, even as they are hounded from country to country, even as they ‘adjust in principle to anything and everything’, even as they become enthusiastic patriots of whatever nation they find themselves driven to, succeed only in ‘remaining Jews all the same’. Arendt calls these Jews ‘parvenus’, upstarts whom the world despises. Those select few who have the strength or fortitude or simply the unwordliness to reject assimilation and whatever crumbs the Gentile world gives the parvenus she calls ‘pariahs’, and the price they pay is even higher, in contempt and worse, than that suffered by the parvenus. Indeed, the only benefit they possess is to live to see themselves as the vanguard of all Europeans. For ‘the comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted’. What happened to the Jews will soon happen to others. Pariahs, Arendt adds, have all the best Jewish qualities: ‘“Jewish heart”, humanity, humour, disinterested intelligence’. She could be describing Greenberg. For us, Greenberg is one of Arendt’s pariahs, and as such his disappearance is a portent that must shake the otherwise satisfying conclusion of Lubitsch’s film to its core, for all viewers, Jews and non-Jews alike.


11. Hannah Arendt, ‘We Refugees’, in Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman (eds), The Jewish Writings (New York: Schocken, 2007), pp. 264-74, 271-2.

12. Ibid., p. 273.





Greenberg’s absence at the end of the film, his unresolved fate, is more powerful than even his death would be. It suggests the power but also the limitation of laughter. As Greenberg says, laughter is nothing to sneeze at. But sometimes sneezes, especially violent ones, happen anyway. All the more reason to value that laughter which is always under threat of being sneezed away. But that does not mean laughter solves everything. Compare Greenberg’s fate to that of Colonel Ehrhardt, another character whose ending is left unclear. When we last see him, his attempts to seduce Maria have gone awry when Bronski, disguised as Hitler, arrives at the Turas’ apartment to collect her on the way to the actors’ last-minute escape. Ehrhardt is shattered to learn that Maria is Hitler’s lover and terrified that the man with the little moustache will seek revenge for Ehrhardt’s temerity. Lubitsch’s handling of the scene is typically adroit. We see Ehrhardt, shaken and sweaty, lower his hand onto the table where his gun lies in its holster. We then cut outside the room to a low-angle shot on the staircase along which Maria and Bronski escape. As their footsteps clatter off-screen, the camera remains fixed on the door to the room. We hear a gunshot, a strangled groan, the sound of a body falling heavily to the ground. And, then, the pièce de résistance: Ehrhardt shouts in fury, ‘Schultz!’ which is what he always says whenever something goes wrong. Schultz (Henry Victor) is Ehrhardt’s long-suffering assistant, the one who pays for his superior’s lapses in judgment. It is unclear what will happen to Ehrhardt but, whatever it is, someone else, some adjutant, some Schultz, is going to pay for it.


Ehrhardt’s ‘death’ is played for laughs, albeit of the bleakest sort. Recently, we screened To Be or Not to Be at our synagogue and were shocked when the audience reacted to this scene with unrestrained laughter. But on reflection we understood: the difference between what happens off-screen to Ehrhardt and what happens off-screen to Greenberg is the difference between the fate of the Germans and the fate of the Poles in Ehrhardt’s breathtaking joke about the concentration camps: ‘We do the concentrating, and the Poles do the camping’. The joke only works (though it is riskier, a greater challenge to decorum, than anything else in the film) because it comes from Ehrhardt’s perspective, a perspective that, however grotesque or disturbing, can be shown and mocked. The other perspective, that of those forced to do the ‘camping’, can neither be shown nor mocked. What does not get spoken in Ehrhardt’s joke is, of course, the word Jew; it is covered over by the word Poles. What does not get spoken of is Greenberg or his fate. To Be or Not to Be leaves us with the obligation to do so, even if it cannot itself. No detail in the film is without its significance, including and especially those that have been omitted.


from Issue 5: Shows


© Dorian Stuber and Marianne Tettlebaum 2014.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.