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A forgotten oddity from the long postwar period leading up to the American New Wave of the '60s, Peter Glenville's Me and the Colonel (1958) is in many ways a movie lost to time, caught between the Nazi-farce of Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942) and the later, reality-confronting chill that would evolve with the '60s, the Eichmann trials in Israel (1961-62), and the emergence of documentaries like Marcel Ophuls's The Sorrow and the Pity (1969). By the 1970s we saw the slow birth of the idea of Holocaust remembrance and "the era of the witness" became a cultural imperative. But in the preceding quarter-century or so, American culture treated the Holocaust experience with tongs, often turning it into comedy or safely stereotyped war-film action, and doing so only occasionally. (It was easy then to make a WWII movie about fighting the Germans and not invoke Nazism meaningfully in any way.) It's a fascinating transitional hiatus in American culture - a time-out European culture couldn't really afford - and you can see Hollywood try to wrestle with the war's unfathomable legacy like a child plays with a live wire: obliviously, naively, on the edge of horrifying awareness.
Me and the Colonel is symptomatic in this way - mild-mannered, earnest, happy to exploit stereotypes and cliches for comic effect, and oozing with a sympathy for the plight of the Jews in Europe that's mostly implicit, as if acknowledging that the last thing any audience member needed, even by 1958, was the verities of the Final Solution jammed down their throats during a Danny Kaye movie. Kaye is the film's raison d'etre, the fading postwar star less than a half-dozen movies away from retiring to occasional TV appearances (his one-shot company, Court Enterprises, co-produced the film), and Kaye's rueful performance here has everything to do, it seems, with the star's observance that his brief and rather strange time in the spotlight has come to an end. A breakout star in 1944's Up in Arms, Kaye had been rescued from a struggling post-vaudevillian stage career by Samuel Goldwyn, and for the rest of the '40s and into the '50s Kaye was a headliner, beloved for sentimental schtick, nonsense songs and a substantial payload of do-gooder energy, as manifested in his notable ambassador work for UNICEF and other charities, and his eagerness to make films for children. Kaye was also one of Hollywood's most prominent activist liberal Jews, honored by the state of Israel and resisting the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, and given his prominence it's surprising to realize that Me and the Colonel is the only film Kaye ever made about the war or the Jewish ordeal of the middle century.
As it is, Glenville's film is no grand statement - it's a mordant lark, based upon the final play written in 1944 by Austrian author Franz Werfel after he'd escaped the Nazis and relocated to California. Kaye plays Jacobowsky, a mild-mannered Polish Jew who by 1940 has already been a refugee twice over before needing to flee Paris on the eve of the Germans' occupation. Inherently wily and gently crafty, Jacobowsky crosses paths with an irritable egomaniac of a Polish Colonel (Curd Jurgens), and connives to have them embark together (along with the Colonel's military manservant, played dyspeptically by Akim Tamiroff) in an ill-gotten car across the countryside to Spain. The Colonel is not only a raging boozer but an unapologetic anti-Semite - but since he is in as much danger from the Nazis as Jacobowsky, an uneasy armistice is met, and in the end the two even conspire on a touch of espionage.
The tricky historical tension between Jews, anti-Semitic Poles and the Germans that would wipe both of them out is not a topic tackled often in Hollywood films. But truthfully Me and the Colonel doesn't tackle so much as do a cakewalk, reveling in its stagy nature and encouraging incorrigible hamminess from its cast. (Glenville was a stage director, never claiming to be much more, and scored a few years later with the grand archness of Summer and Smoke in 1961, and 1964's Becket.) Kaye is sly and subtle, but Jurgens is a gargantuan, bug-eyed cartoon, bullhorning his way through his scenes so crudely he seems to have forgotten his own German accent.
The thickly-sliced pork rump on display doesn't weigh the movie down terribly, because Werfel's intention was always to couch the despair of the situation in impish situational humor, all of it fueled by the Colonel's irritated racism, his unquenchable thirst, his idiotic ideas of aristocratic nobility, and his heedless lust for his French girlfriend (Nicole Maurey). Clearly, in Werfel's view a certain class of intolerant and oppressive Pole deserved everything they got from the Germans, and if anything the movie constitutes some kind of sociopolitical revenge. (Where or how Werfel might've been wronged or disgusted by Polish aristocracy, we may never know.) But in the end all is well - only Kaye's knowing dread, reflected often only in his watchful eyes, suggests the true stakes at hand. Everything else, including the plot itself, transforms the refugee scramble of 1940 into a goofy road trip, where vodka is traded for gasoline and French nuns are the ultimate escape-gimmick ruse.
It is a coincidence that in 1944 Werfel named his character as he did, in the play's title (Jacobowsky under der Oberst), and that the first genuine Holocaust film, The Last Stage (1948), a Polish film about life in Auschwitz, made less than three years after liberation of the camp, shot on location in Auschwitz itself, using real liberated prisoners as extras, was directed by Wanda Jakubowska, herself an Auschwitz client just a few years earlier. Glenville's small movie, despite some on-location footage shot in France, takes place on a different planet altogether, a daydream landscape of the Hollywood Holocaust, with more vaudeville in its blood than refugee outrage.
Producer: William Goetz
Director: Peter Glenville
Screenplay: S.N. Behrman (screenplay and play: American version); George Froeschel (screenplay); Franz Werfel (original play)
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Direction: Walter Holscher, Georges Wakhevitch
Music: George Duning
Film Editing: William A. Lyon, Charles Nelson
Cast: Danny Kaye (S.L. Jacobowsky), Curt Jurgens (Colonel Prokoszny), Nicole Maurey (Suzanne Roualet), Francoise Rosay (Madame Bouffier), Akim Tamiroff (Szabuniewicz), Martita Hunt (Mother Superior), Alexander Scourby (Major Von Bergen), Liliane Montevecchi (Cosette), Ludwig Stssel (Dr. Szicki), Gerard Buhr (German Captain)
by Michael Atkinson