Film & Music

The Art of Tragic Laughter

an exploration of tragicomedy in early film

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Over 2 millennia ago, before glowing screens told our stories, a playwright called Plautus (254 – 184 BC) included in his play Amphitryon an early combination of two seemingly opposite genres. His experimental genre is described within the play itself by his characterization of the god Mercury, who says, “I shall make a comedy out of this tragedy, with all the same verses… I will make it a mixture: let it be a tragicomedy. I don’t think it would be appropriate to make it consistently a comedy, when there are kings and gods in it. What do you think? Since a slave also has a part in the play, I’ll make it a tragicomedy.”  (Mukherji, 2007, pp. 8-9) In writing this, Plautus became one of the earliest artists to explore the bizarrely effective relationship between pain and humor.

Now this strange juxtaposition of genres is sometimes called a “comedy-drama” or, to save time, a “dramedy.” What makes this genre so attractive? How was it first manifest in film and in what ways did those stories demonstrate the connection between laughter and suffering? To answer these questions, let’s turn to three early films all hovering around the 1930s and 1940s, a time when America felt the weight of the unemployed and the world was scarred with trenches. These three films are Modern Times, La Grande Illusion, and To Be or Not To Be. Each exhibits different, albeit nuanced, forms of comedy. And each deals with the pain of a burdened world. These would-be dramatic films use comedy, respectively, as an escape, a coping mechanism, and a tool for empowerment.

In Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin writes both a prequel and farewell to his well-loved character “The Tramp.” At first glance this film could appear to be nothing more than just really good silent comedy. But behind the physical humor, Modern Times addresses the dangers of industrialization, the dehumanization of factory workers, and the heavy shadow of the Great Depression. This movie is both a relief from the dreary state of American mid-lower class in the 1930s and a subtle cry for help. It encourages audiences to laugh through the pain of poverty — Modern Times was an escape, but never a denial.

Modern Times

The movie follows the adventure of an unlucky factory worker as he attempts to find a new job. It shows the arduous conditions of factory workers and the antagonistic nature of big bosses. Modern Times also uses wild stunts to symbolize the industrialized worker’s struggle as America became increasingly industrialized. For example, early in the movie, the head of the factory is considering eliminating lunch breaks in a comedic yet significantly symbolic scene in which Chaplin is accidentally force fed machine parts. Repeatedly, Charlie Chaplin contorts his body to fit inside the turning conveyer belts of a machine. Later, he experiences a “comedic” breakdown as a result of the nonstop assembly line job he performs. These scenes are played for laughs, but they also powerfully demonstrate the dangers of confusing men with machines in a newly commercialized world.  Saul Austerlitz said, “To see the Tramp strapped into an auto-feeding machine, being shoveled a steady diet of metal nuts, or emerging from a shift on the factory line still adjusting phantom screws (even attempting to tighten the buttons on a woman’s dress), is to witness Chaplin’s alchemical gift for transforming anxiety into humor. The Tramp is menaced by technology, and while Chaplin’s revenge is only partial and symbolic, it is essential nonetheless.” (Austerlitz, “Modern Times: Exit the Tramp”)

Modern Times also uses symbolism within its physical humor to explore the struggles of living in Great Depression-era America. The Tramp is arrested after accidentally participating in a communist protest, and once released he lives in a shack that falls apart in a new way every time he touches anything. The movie almost says that, in such a time, one couldn’t help but be poor and downtrodden. Tragedy was (and is) inherent, but rather than cry on the floor, Chaplin chose to escape from it through laughter.

Renoir’s La Grande Illusion is set in a German Prisoner of War camp during World War I. It tells the stories of French prisoners who befriend each other and attempt to escape a few times, one while forming an unexpected amicable friendship with their German leader. La Grande Illusion strongly demonstrates Renoir’s belief that humans are fundamentally good and that any separations or restrictions between human relationships are flawed.  The movie deals with some of history’s darkest creations — war camps are rarely a laughing matter. But the characters within the movie cope with this dramatic historic reality through their own witty banter and jokes. Although not explicitly a comedy, this movie shows how humorous dialogue can not only relieve an audience but help people to cope with agonizing issues. The characters bond over humor, showing the connectivity between all mankind — we are all equals when we are laughing together, we all share similar fears and joys, and that is what Renoir draws upon in his humor. Comedy is uniting.

La Grande Illusion

The two main characters of La Grande Illusion eventually escape and end up seeking refuge in the house of a German woman. A German and French friendship would be unexpected given the war, but this is Renoir’s movie, and he believed that we’re all equals. To Renoir, political and social hierarchies were nothing more than a facade. Since it’s wartime and a German winter, the poor misfit group make a nativity out of potatoes. Then the daughter of the German woman exclaims that she wants to “eat Jesus.” This type of humor permeates the whole movie — it’s a tragic subject matter, but there is no escapism present. The audience is not guided to look away from the harsh reality of war, but instead learns to cope directly with it. Says Peter Cowie, “The accident of war brings out the fundamentally decent nature of people who in peacetime would be unbending strangers to one another.” (“La Grande Illusion”)

To Be or Not To Be was, and remains, a highly controversial film due to the fact that it makes jokes out of Nazis. But this film, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, perfectly illustrates the empowerment that humor can give an otherwise trampled people. By laughing at Nazis, we don’t have to be as afraid. Our laughter discredits their power and hands it to the comedians, actors, and audience. In doing so, To Be or Not To Be stands on a very thin line between drama and comedy — which creates a chaotic sort of humor that engulfs the entire plotline. The characters and situations are morbid and extremely dramatic (this movie could be characterized as a “dark comedy”) and yet they’re also humorously far fetched and unexpected. It’s a delicate balance and thus highly disputed at an ethical level.

To Be Or Not To Be includes both comedy and tragedy, but neither side attempts to hide the other. In one scene, an actor recites a symbolic Shakespearean verse to fake Hitler, which both prompts the audience to laugh at the absurdity of the moment while actually witnessing a touching moment of rebellion against a dictatorship that was raging even during the movie’s screenings. Yet the film shows no remorse in the face of murder. Twice in the film Nazis are killed without thought: once when a Nazi leader and recruiter is shot in the theater, and again when Nazis are fooled to jump from a plane. These scenes are numbing because the tone is very light given the circumstances, which explains the harsh response the movie received. And yet the characters react in a panicked manner — worrying for their own lives and the lives of those around them and frantically trying to think of solutions.  So although the movie plays off Naziism as some sort of sick joke, the situations remain tense. One character in particular puts his entire undercover identity and life at risk when he finds out his wife is having an affair.

To Be or Not To Be

In response to the controversy surrounding a comedic film about Nazis, Lubitsch said, “I had made up my mind to make a picture with no attempt to relieve anybody from anything at any time; dramatic when the situation demands it, satire and comedy whenever it is called for. One might call it a tragical farce or a farcical tragedy.” (Penner, 2014) The film was not meant as a mixture of the two, but rather as a chaotic relationship throwing the audience into disbelief. It’s easy to understand why so many critics continue to denounce this movie as inappropriate, however, given its harshly nonchalant depictions of factual elements of Hitler’s regime, such as the bombings in Poland that led to the deaths of millions. This demonstrates that although comedy has the potential to empower audiences through laughter, the false sense of control over a situation can end up numbing one to violence. To Be Or Not To Be’s blatant indifference to death not only discredits the violent and mindless loyalty of Nazi soldiers, but it hauntingly reflects the same callousness towards human life that the Gestapo soldiers themselves exemplified.

These films are not alone in mixing comedy with drama. In times when people were taught that their lives meant nothing, dramedies sought out that mix of salty tears and laughter. Many depictions of World War II in film fought to find optimism in tragedy. Hogan’s Heroes deals with the lives of spies in a Nazi war camp in a light-hearted television sitcom, which can be compared to Modern Times in regards to its comedic tone throughout. On the other end of the spectrum, Life is Beautiful stands as a painful and realistic depiction of the Holocaust in which a father attempts to saves his young son from the reality of genocide through theatrics and jokes, a coping mechanism for the audience and father alike. And even Charlie Chaplin attempted to depower Hitler through jokes in his film The Great Dictator, thereby empowering the audience.

The combination of difficult events with humor comes in countless forms, but these three movies (Modern Times, Grand Illusion, and To Be or Not To Be) illustrate how effective this combination can be in teaching an audience to enjoy life despite adversity, to cope with tragedy, and then to empower themselves despite it. La Grande Illusion is at first glance a war film drama with hidden comedy. Modern Times is at first glance a slapstick comedy with hidden tragedy. And To Be or Not To Be is a blatant mix of the two. But all three are relatively enjoyable — perhaps because the audience can relate. Our lives are both hilarious and painful. Reality and our response to reality is not separated into genres — and so these stories refuse to filter out either side.

Dramedies can distract us from hardship, help us filter our discomfort through laughter, or simply tackle the misery head on. These films teach us that comedy and drama are not separate, not opposites, but, perhaps in their ideal form, star crossed lovers.

written for a film history course in fall 2015

Works Cited

Austerlitz, Saul. “Modern Times: Exit the Tramp.” Criterion Collection. 16 Nov. 2010. Web. 8

Dec. 2015. <www.criterion.com/current/posts/1656-modern-times-exit-the-tramp>.

“La Grande Illusion.” Face Foundation. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

<http://face-foundation.org/tournees-film-festival/la-grande-illusion/&gt;.

Mukherji, Subha. Early Modern Tragicomedy. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2007.

8-9. Print.

Penner, David. Can the Nazis Be Funny? Can We Laugh at the Holocaust? Examining Comedic

Representations of the Nazis and Their Contexts from World War II to the Present ! Thesis.University of Michigan, 2014.

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