Translation | Jean Eustache on Ernst Lubitsch

A rare, newly translated piece of criticism from the Nouvelle Vague naturalist.
Peter Goldberg

The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache, 1973).

Jean Eustache orbited the world of criticism without ever fully falling into it. His intellectual biographer, Alain Philippon, describes him as a marginal figure at Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1960s and yet actively involved in the debates unfolding in its offices.1 Though Eustache was close with future Cahiers editor-in-chief Jean-Louis Comolli and the magazine championed his films from the start, his critical output was minuscule. He started contributing to Cahiers only after completing his first short, Bad Company (1963). Even then, he wrote little, publishing a few brief pieces on some early films by Paul Vecchiali, Jean-Daniel Pollet, and Costa-Gavras. Luc Moullet would later admit that prior to Bad Company, he thought him the only person at Cahiers “that had absolutely nothing to do with the movies.”2 Indeed, Eustache was often at the offices to pick up his wife, who was employed as a secretary at the magazine. 

Eustache loved cinema, but unsystematically. His tastes were on par with his comrades’ at Cahiers, but unlike Godard or Rivette, he did not write about film history to stake a claim in contemporary cinema. Dreyer, Bresson, Guitry, Mizoguchi, and above all Renoir and Lang were his saints,3 but he never theorized their work in writing. Instead, Eustache’s reflections on cinema have come through interviews and writings on his own movies, which reveal an artist constantly recontouring the limits of his form. 

Although last summer’s touring restoration of his complete oeuvre—previously seldom-screened and hard to find—has finally made Eustache more accessible, none of his film criticism is available in English. This lack has only bolstered Eustache’s romantic mien. Reading him through his bracingly and openly autobiographical films can feel overdetermined; our interpretation of them gets sieved through his personal struggles, from his difficult childhood to his early death by suicide at 42. Considering his writing allows us further insight into Eustache as a thinker of film. His brief, theoretically dense 1962 review of Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece To Be or Not To Be (1942), published in the journal Cinéma 62, offers insight into his thinking on cinema just as he was making the leap into filmmaking. This text, perhaps Eustache’s only one that looks back on a movie from the past, is all the more interesting because French film culture  of his moment often overlooked Lubitsch; his films didn’t benefit from the critical reappraisal of Hollywood cinema in the 1950s that elevated the profile of directors like Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock. Though Lubitsch was by no means forgotten by Cahiers, it wasn’t until 1968 that he was fully embraced in an issue dedicated to his work.4 Comedy benefited less from these reevaluations than genres like suspense or the western, so it’s especially notable that Eustache is interested in Lubitsch for the ways he troubles the line between comedy and drama.

At first blush, Lubitsch and Eustache seem like unlikely bedmates. The former was a cosmopolitan artificer of a weightless bourgeois world. The latter was a naturalist, a provincial proletarian, a grave chronicler of disillusion and the sad passions. But Eustache’s Lubitsch is a formal master deftly laying bare the fundamental relationship between comedy and drama, the actor and reality. We can find kernels of Eustache’s later filmmaking in this analysis. In Eustache’s films, doubling and repetition are often used to underline the dramatic structure of experience, to complicate the relation between reality and appearance. If, for him, tragedy and farce easily transform into each other, Eustache’s focus on the myriad reversals, dupes, and ellipses in To Be or Not To Be suggest he may have gleaned some of this from Lubitsch.5

Eustache’s tantalizingly brief argument about Lubitsch’s mise-en-scène is the article’s most interesting, if beguiling, aspect. In his 1967 essay “Death of a Word,” André S. Labarthe argued that "mise-en-scène" had become an irrelevant critical term in light of the stylistic innovations of the New Wave, Eustache’s films included.6 Here, Eustache is already critically interrogating the concept, arguing that Lubitsch has unsettled mise-en-scène, subordinating it to the direction of actors and the script rather than treating it as an autonomous element of film grammar. In this early piece, we can see Eustache’s formal sensibility taking shape. Serge Daney justly eulogized Eustache as “an ethnologist of his own reality.”7 He was also an engineer who continuously resurveyed the structure of his medium.

To Be or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942).

To Be or Not To Be8

In their offices, German officials discuss the greatness of their country, of their Führer. Hitler appears, preceded by a chorus of “Heil Hitlers” in the halls. Everyone salutes him. Carried away by their enthusiasm, he salutes himself: “Heil myself.The director objects, because we are in a theater rehearsal in Poland, 1942.9 They are preparing a biting work called Gestapo, and “Heil myself” wasn’t in the script.

What we believed to be reality turns out to be theater. Inversely, comedy will soon turn out to be reality. Later on the lead actor of the company, Joseph Tura, ends up playing the roles first of a Gestapo colonel and then of a Nazi professor spy—both in real life. (One sees that we’re not far from the question posed by the sublime Camilla in Le Carrosse d’or [Jean Renoir, 1952]: “Where does theater end, where does life begin?”) The more he acts, the more he becomes himself through his characters, to the point of anticipating their reactions before ever actually meeting them: while Tura is passing himself off as Colonel Erhardt of the SS, the actual professor reveals that in London they call him “Concentration Camp Erhardt.” He laughs in the same way as the real Colonel Erhardt does later on when Tura, now playing the professor, reveals the nickname to him.

It’s significant that the real professor—indeed, this is the key to the film—dies behind the curtain on the stage where Gestapo was being performed at the opening. A fundamental inversion complicates Lubitsch’s mise-en-scène: the real character actually dies on stage, a place dedicated to performance (to falsehood); and the actor (an unreal character by definition), taking over in real life, will be even realer than the actual professor. In this life, as in the theater, truth lies in appearances. When they’ve recovered the body of the professor, who has a beard, the Gestapo sets up a confrontation between the corpse and the impersonator. Alone in the room, Tura shaves the dead man and puts a false beard on his chin. He thus proves through mere appearances, when the SS colonel yanks the beard from the dead man, that the impersonator was not the one the colonel thought. Theater wins the day. But does it hold onto it? No, because soon after, SS officials barge in and tear the fake beard from Tura, revealing his trick. After having won, the theater loses, but then in the next shot, Tura is in a room arguing with members of the Polish resistance. A remarkable ellipsis: believing him to be in danger, they got him away from the Gestapo in this manner. This ceaseless shift of appearances and coups de théâtre in the true sense of the term make the actor the driving character of comedy and, paradoxically, makes comedy the key to drama.

In the end, Lubitsch is talking about serious things. The abrupt changes of tone to which our young filmmakers have accustomed us receive an almost existential justification. If nothing is put forward that can’t subsequently be denied, comedy is surpassed while simultaneously granted its letters patent. The fusion of comedy and drama, of drama and life, leads to seriousness. It’s enough that an action happens in one scene or another (life or comedy) for it to have the opposite effect: at the beginning, the audience laughs at the farcical “Gestapo” troops. But when this same farce unfolds in real life, it has consequences that could not be more tragic. Here, however, tragedy and comedy share a common origin. The film will be all the funnier if the actors play real characters and the real characters behave like performers. When Joseph Tura is going to visit Colonel Erhardt of the SS dressed as the professor, the scene is amusing because it deals with Tura; if it were really the professor, for instance, he would have handed over the list of names, and the comedy would have been destroyed, metamorphosed into pure drama. And it would be remiss not to mention the gag—one of the most sublime in the history of cinema—where one of the actors, disguised as Hitler, orders German soldiers on his airplane to jump into thin air in order to get rid of them, and they do it.

Based as it is upon the actor, the mise-en-scène shines through above all else in the direction of actors. Their body language, their manner of speaking, of moving through the shot, confirm Lubitsch as one of the greatest directors.10 Carole Lombard’s marvelous expressions or Jack Benny’s extraordinary impressions of a mutt with wounded pride reveal a profound understanding of the actor’s art and its possibilities. The young cinephiles who know practically nothing about Lubitsch (it’s not their fault, since the distributors have not spoiled us in this area), will be able to detect the debt Mankiewicz and Preminger owe him.

At this level of expression and stylization, it is evident that mise-en-scène is in place well before shooting. It is already there in the construction and development of the script, which contains all the film’s possibilities, possibilities that become the “subject” when the film takes shape. This explains the apparent simplicity of the mise-en-scène and movements, mostly reframes, which risks unsettling an audience used to “watching” a mise-en-scène.

Cinéma 62, no. 65 (April 1962): 118.

The translator wishes to thank Elena Comay del Junco for her feedback on an earlier draft.

  1. Alain Philippon, Jean Eustache (Paris, France: Cahiers du Cinéma, 1986), 11. 
  2. Luc Moullet, “Blue Collar Dandy,” Film Comment  36, no. 5 (September/October 2000): 38. 
  3. Philippon, 14. 
  4. Cahiers du cinéma, no. 198 (February 1968). 
  5. For a Spanish-language analysis of doubling in The Mother and the Whore (1973) and its relation to Eustache’s reading of To Be or Not To Be, see Andrea Queralt, “Eustache - Lubitsch, o la imposible filiación de un cinéfil,” Lumière, no. 4 (2010): 401. 
  6. André S. Labarthe, “Mort d’un mot,” Cahiers du cinéma, no. 195 (November 1967): 66. 
  7. Serge Daney, “Le fil (mort de Jean Eustache),” Libération (November 16, 1981), trans. Steve Erickson. 
  8. The piece appears with the title “Jeux Dangereux,” the original French release title of the film. It appeared in a section called “Revus…et corriges!,” devoted to films from the past. In this issue, Eustache’s article appeared alongside Bertrand Tavernier’s writing on Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943) and Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway (1950).  
  9. To Be or Not To Be was released in 1942, but the scene takes place in 1939, just before the war. 
  10. English in the original. 

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