This movie was released in 1942, and it’s apparently the first movie to use the phrase “concentration camp” in association with the Nazis. Ernst Lubitsch was willing to be bold long before others were – the camps were a topic that was too heavy for the studios to touch in an age of conservative censorship, but he was determined to address it. The only problem: this is supposed to be a comedy.
There are some elements of this movie that are pretty funny. The complicated relationship between an actor, his wife and the Nazi professor who is trying to woo her provides a lot of solid farcical material, particularly after the actor has to start pretending to be the Nazi to cover up the fact that the Polish underground actually killed him. But as you can tell from some of the key words in that last sentence a lot of the material in this movie has such grim undertones it’s hard to laugh at it. Lubitsch probably had some ideas about how bad it was in Germany, but this was before any photos or concrete information would have leaked out, so a lot of the jokes which might have worked fine at the time look really off the mark in retrospect.
It’s been years since I’ve seen Life is Beautiful, but I remember the mechanics of that film being finely tuned. Benigni tried hard to juggle the lighter parts of the story against the heavier parts of the backdrop without doing disservice to either. Lubitsch doesn’t do nearly as good of a job of juggling – but he also doesn’t have the gift of hindsight. Benigni knew where the landmines were, so it’s a lot less surprising that he didn’t step on them.
Ultimately the weird disconnect between how this movie is talking about the war and how we talk about the war now is what makes it so compelling. It’s an unique example of history in real time – a concrete example of what people actually felt about the war, rather than how they’d have us think they felt now that they know more about what really went on. It’s a portrait of a time when the Nazis were villains, not monsters, and when the Allies were heroes, not saviors. I don’t know if it succeeds as a comedy, but it definitely succeeds at being interesting.