Carole Lombard and Jack Benny lead chaos in 1942’s To Be or Not to Be, Ernst Lubitsch’s classic black comedy set amongst a group of actors turned resistors in occupied Poland. Considered to be in bad taste at the time, it was, to say the least, a bold film to make, one that mocked the very real and active threat of the Nazis to their faces. It’s also endlessly witty and truly hilarious, generous and kind. It’s a treat.
We think about it in comparison to other satire, in particular that of Mel Brooks, who José argues has an aggression and contempt that Lubitsch avoids, while Mike suggests that their work shares an absolute unambiguity as to the targets they set and the messages they convey. But there’s unquestionably a remarkable sensitivity of tone to To Be or Not to Be, as well as an effortlessly executed intelligence in plotting, with the love triangle of the opening leading cleverly, smoothly, and unpredictably, into the unmasking of a Gestapo spy.
José can’t speak highly enough of Lubitsch, above whom there sits nobody in the pantheon of the great filmmakers. And Mike likes him too.
P.S. Corrections and clarifications: Mike begs your forgiveness for incorrectly claiming that Sid Caesar famously played a comedy Nazi on television in the 1950s. He in fact played a German general. A comedy German general.
It’s so much better than I expected, so intelligent and visually impressive that I almost had to remind myself that World War Z isn’t quite good. The film is about zombies — that’s what finally got me to the cinema. They’re everywhere at the moment and I like them in almost all their variations: on TV in the wonderful The Walking Dead (created by Frank Darabont, USA, AMC, 2010-); as quasi-teen romantic horror played for laughs in Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine, USA, 2013); in foreign films, even from Cuba, such as Juan of the Dead/ Juan de los Muertos (Alejandro Brugés, Cuba, 2011) and even in the most far-out variations such as The Happiness of the Katakuris [Takashi Miike, Japan, admittedly a while ago, 2001) — musical zombie films from Japan anyone? Just as interestingly, they’ve become a political symbol for the Chilean Student Movement, with masses of students protesting against the government dressed as zombies doing gigantic flash-mobs to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.
This particular take on zombies is based on Max Brooks wonderful 2006 novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War but is very different to it.Brooks’ book has no central protagonist but is instead structured like Studs Terkel’s classic books on World Word II and the Depression such as Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. The influence is clear from the title of the books alone and Brooks’ novel is indeed structured as an oral history of the Zombie War, told by different survivors of it from different countries and from different walks of life. The idea is to evoke with panoramic sweep yet retain all the particularities; to not lose sight of the big picture but to also focus on people. This permits Brooks in his novel to allow for allegory whilst also keeping a sharp eye on narrative and action. One can see why the book was so attractive to producers (though its natural form seems to be more as a basis for an HBO series than what is permissible in feature film form).
Film buffs may be interested in knowing that Brooks is the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. Zombie fanatics will already know about his also being the author of The Zombie Survival Guide. What is interesting to me about Brooks in relation to the film is that he’s also written for comic books such as The Extinction Parade and even new takes on established franchises such as his Hearts and Minds graphic novel in the G.I.Joe franchise. What interests me about Brooks’ work here, his curt no-nonsense noir dialogue, the political point-of-view necessary for allegory and critique, the brutal, corrupt world in which all is not yet hopeless, the superb marriage of story/action/dialogue evident in his work for comic books, is only as a measure of the extent to which it is absent in the movie of World War Z.
Marc Foster’s take on World War Z does make you glad that you are watching it in a cinema and does seem to provide what a smaller screen can’t quite, a travelogue of spectacular disasters in various, and variously exotic, parts of the world — those masses of zombies swarming, climbing on top of each other like ants jacked up on methamphetamines, jumping into cars and even planes- — sometimes in really thrilling areal shots that reveal a world unraveling — whilst being able to see every element of these composition of disaster in great detail. You can definitely see where the money went. (estimated cost is $190 million after tax breaks).
It’s not boring either. The narrative has a melodramatic basis: Gerry Lane’s (Brad Pitt) family is being sheltered only because of his skills; and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and two girls are under threat not only from the zombies but from the authorities, as they are in an ‘essential-personnel-only’ facility. Their presence in the shelter is conditional on Brad’s continuing existence and eventual success.
In ‘Brad’s War’, a very interesting cover story on the troubled production of the film that made the cover of the June issue of Vanity Fair, Laura M. Helson tells us ‘What the ending of World War Z needed was for its hero to be re-united with his wife and children’ According to Helson, when screenwriter Damon Lindeloff was asked in to view a 72 minute rough- cut of the picture that didn’t work and to offer some possible solutions, he noted that, “Lane (Brad Pitt) has to ‘save the world’ to get back to his family,” said Lindelof, adding, “It is an emotional task.”
However, though the family is central to the film’s functioning as melodrama, World War Z never puts what family might really mean to the test: What would have happened if his wife had been rendered a zombie and was on the verge of converting his child, what would he do? or, if both of his children where to be converted and he could only choose one?
The film doesn’t want to rock the boat too much. And because it doesn’t, it is never once as moving or as complex in terms of human feeling of survival, loss, and transformation as various episodes of AMC’s Walking Dead . The series tangled with really important questions (what is society? What is community? What is it to be human? What does it mean to love? What is morality? How does one live ethically in a chaotic world filled with disasters?) that this film, busy as it is with its pile-up of disasters, doesn’t even begin to broach.
World War Z has a nice central idea; that survival depends on movement and change; but if films don’t work emotionally, they simply don’t work, no matter how much they cost. This particular film works in terms of immediate sensation rather than of depth or complexity of feeling; though here even the sensational elements succeed only up to a point: it’s only mildly scare, a little creepy, somewhat horrifying; it’s the kind of zombie film people who don’t like zombie films will enjoy, which I suppose is the kind of audience a film budgeted at World War Z’s level is aiming for.
There is no question that it is spectacular, and that it has some terrific set-pieces such as the zombies on a plane (which could be the basis for an entire, very exciting film). But overall, I found it much better than I had expected and then not as good as it had led me to hope. Pitt is effective and has a very good moment when his eyes well with emotion at the thought of never seeing his daughters again. But it’s almost the only time we get a hint of anything happening underneath his practical façade (contrast Pitt’s performance here to Andrew Lincoln’s in The Walking Dead). As an actor, Pitt is a little like World War Z is as a film: all externals, spectacular to look at, moves thrillingly, but with something unfathomable and likely to be blank under the surface.
…And yet, as David Denby so interestingly notes in his New Yorker review in the July1, 2013 issue, ”the movie…evokes the hectic density of modern life; it stirs fears of plague and anarchy, and the feeling everything is constantly accelerating. At times, it has the tone and tempo of a panic…The zombies aren’t like us; they are us, just degraded a little’. That sense of the film being a refraction of who we think we are; and also a refraction of how the world we live in makes us feel, is part of what makes it so interesting; much more interesting than one initially thought.