Slavoj Zizek on Ernst Lubitsch, To Be or Not to Be, Shop Around the Corner and the Lacanian psychology of those movies.
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?
Zizek's best part on To Be or Not to Be is this section near the middle
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.