With “To Be or Not to Be,” director Ernst Lubitsch achieved something astonishing: He laughed in the face of the Nazis by creating a comedy that illustrates how their ideology makes them buffoons. What’s even more astonishing is that “To Be or Not to Be” was released only three months after Pearl Harbor. It was a precarious time in the world, with uncertainty and terror dominating the national sentiment, and it wasn’t exactly the “appropriate” time to poke fun at the great evil lurking right around the corner. But Lubitsch and screenwriter Edwin Justus Mayer (adapting a story by Melchior Lengyel) realized something profound: The best time to mock the most ruthless, vile force the world had ever seen was when it seemed the least appropriate. Lubitsch designed “To Be or Not to Be” to be shocking, but only because the best satire is meant to shake you to your core. It’s not in poor taste, but rather necessary, powerful, and hilarious over 70 years later.
Plotted within an inch of its life, “To Be or Not to Be” begins before the German invasion of Poland with a Warsaw theater company rehearsing their satire of the Nazi regime. The play stars Josef Tura (Jack Benny, in an absolutely brilliant performance), a “ham” who’s always trying to take center stage, and his beautiful wife Maria (Carol Lombard, in unfortunately her last film role), who loves her husband but also accepts flowers from a handsome young pilot Lt. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack). During the company’s production of “Hamlet,” in which Tura plays the title role, Maria tells Sobinski to meet her in her dressing room during Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” monologue. They secretly have an affair, but it’s cut short by Germany declaring war on Poland and Sobinski leaving to join the war effort. But when Sobinski discovers that a Polish resistance leader Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) is a traitor to the cause, Sobinski is sent to warn the resistance. Through a series of misunderstandings, mistaken identity, and bad luck, Sobinski ropes the Tura’s and the Warsaw theater company into protecting the Polish resistance by infiltrating the Gestapo.
For the first half of “To Be or Not to Be,” Lubitsch and Mayer turn their sights on actors and performers, illustrating their narcissism, vanity, and foolishness. They have only one master and it’s the stage, and they’ll be damned if they won’t serve it honorably. Through a remarkably deft introduction to the principal characters, Lubitsch captures the various egos and agendas at work in any theater company — small actors wanting to be bigger, big actors wanting to be important, writers wanting their words protected, etc. But when Germany declares war, Lubitsch and Mayer do something simultaneously extraordinary and obvious: They use the actors’ professional buffoonery as a weapon against the Nazis inherent buffoonery. When Tura disguises himself first as Colonel Ehrhardt and then as Siletsky, he’s shrewd and cunning, but he’s also overacting beyond all measure. Yet, because the Nazis are so blinded by their mission, they can’t recognize the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Amidst all the “Heil Hitler”s and forced decorum, they’re unable to see they’re being hoodwinked by people who want nothing more than to live on stage.
Perhaps the most controversial element of “To Be or Not to Be” isn’t necessarily the humor (although lines like “What he did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland” and “We do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping” still have a bite to them), but the fact that Lubitsch demonstrates that even the most horrific people are capable of human foibles. Take the “real” Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman), a broad, buffoonish character who takes pride in nicknames like “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt” and is so gullible that he’ll believe anything just to please his superiors. Lubitsch draws a subtle connection between Ehrhardt’s desire to be liked and appreciated by his peers and Tura’s desire to be admired by strangers on the stage, but what’s incredible about this is that Lubitsch doesn’t ever ask for an audience to sympathize with Ehrhardt. We’re supposed to laugh at him and his boorish attempts to ingratiate himself with an imposter. After all, he’s a Nazi. But Lubitsch picked up what few others did at the time: the truly terrifying thing about Nazis was that they were human. They weren’t an abstract threat. They were flesh and blood people with desires and weaknesses like everyone else. They deserved to be laughed at for their human flaws because they are human.
There’s much to praise in “To Be or Not to Be” — Benny’s unparalleled comic timing, Lombard’s impeccable delivery, the “Lubitsch touch” with all its innuendos that evade the Production Code — but it’s Lubitsch’s ability to balance comedy and drama, levity and fear, lightheartedness and solemnity that’s truly breathtaking. In fact, it’s interesting to see what Lubitsch doesn’t laugh at, mainly the actual invasion of Poland. When the German declare war, Lubitsch treats it soberly and properly, with Maria delivering the bluntest expression of the inherent tragedy of war: “People are going to kill each other and be killed.” Despite what its harshest critics at the time believed, “To Be or Not to Be” doesn’t make fun of war itself. In fact, it treats it as threatening as it deserves. But what Lubitsch has no qualms laughing at is Hitler and his cronies who believe they know what’s best for the world and who does and doesn’t deserve to live in it. At every step of the way, Lubitsch mocks the world’s biggest enemy by showing just how dumb they are for buying into their corrupt leader’s hubris, how foolish they have to be to blindly follow a man with a little mustache. For a writer and director, the best weapon against forces stronger than you is to illustrate just how small they really are. In the words of the indelible Greenberg (Felix Bressart), who longs to one day shed his bit roles and play Shylock, “A laugh is nothing to be sneezed at.”
More thoughts from the web:
Keith Phipps, The Dissolve
“To Be Or Not To Be” works as both comedy and thriller, ratcheting up the tension and humor as the actors’ scheme threatens to fall apart, and the gags build on one another. Benny and Lombard (in her last film role) play off each other beautifully, creating a believable depiction of a marriage between two people whose love for each other is just enough to make up for the ways they drive each other mad. The way the story of their marriage plays out in the middle of the war is key to making the film work, too. They bicker, disagree, bond, come together, and start all over again in the midst of the war, because war is something nations start, but people fight. In every moment of “To Be Or Not To Be,” up to a brilliantly deployed monologue from a different Shakespeare play than the one that lends the film its title, Lubitsch never lets viewers forget that. Read more.
Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader
Ernst Lubitsch directed this 1942 film from his own story about a troupe of Polish actors stranded in the Nazi-occupied Warsaw of World War II. It could be his finest achievement, and it’s certainly one of the most profound, emotionally complex comedies ever made, covering a range of tones from satire to slapstick to shocking black humor. The issues, as the title suggests, are deeply serious, but it’s part of the film’s strategy — and the strategy it endorses for its characters — never to openly acknowledge them. Jack Benny, as the leader of the troupe, displays an acting talent never again demanded of him; Carole Lombard, in her last film, is kittenish, slinky, and witty as his unfaithful wife. Read more.
Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club
Because the second half of “To Be Or Not To Be,” once Benny starts impersonating Nazis, is so outlandishly hilarious, it’s easy to forgive the film’s comparatively sluggish first half, which is mostly setup for gags to come (and which heavily features Stack, who wouldn’t become funny until “Airplane!” nearly four decades later). On his long-running radio and TV program, Benny more or less invented, and perfected, the archetype of the self-regarding schlemiel; here, he plays that character again, but in a context that continually requires him to pretend to be the very people he despises, thereby transforming that persona into an aggressive form of self-loathing. It also affords him endless opportunities to mine humor from desperate improvisation, parroting phrases he’d previously heard from Ruman. And all the while, without sacrificing laughs, he manages to convey the true gravity of the situation — so strongly, in fact, that it’s hard to believe that contemporary audiences and critics found the film offensively glib; it’s anything but.
Edgar Anstey, The Spectator
The comedy is good enough to survive the delicacy of the theme, but unfortunately “To Be or Not To Be” is not all comedy. Messrs. Korda and Lubitsch have here and there abandoned their buffoonery to commiserate with the Poles and the Jews, and to make some return for their Hollywood comforts with sequences which they no doubt hope may prove to be anti-Nazi propaganda. At these points the film becomes very uncomfortable indeed. Once you have been persuaded to share a trans-Atlantic vision of the Nazis as incompetent and rather lovable clowns, it is disturbing to be asked suddenly to share the producers’ discovery that they are capable of doing quite a lot of damage. Read more.
Bosley Crowther, The New York Times
Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy was a positive declaration when compared to the jangled moods and baffling humors of Ernst Lubitsch’s new film, “To Be or Not to Be,” which opened yesterday at the Rivoli under delicate circumstances at best. For not only was this the last picture in which the late Carole Lombard played — and on which was therefore imposed an obligation of uncommon tact — but it happens to be upon a subject which is far from the realm of fun. And yet, in a spirit of levity, contused by frequent doses of shock, Mr. Lubitsch has set his actors to performing a spy-thriller of fantastic design amid the ruins and frightful oppressions of Nazi-invaded Warsaw. To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case. Perhaps there are plenty of persons who can overlook the locale, who can still laugh at Nazi generals with pop-eyes and bungle-some wits. Perhaps they can fancy Jack Benny, disguised behind goggles and beard, figuratively tweaking the noses of the best Gestapo sleuths. Those patrons will certainly relish the burlesque bravado of this film. And many more will enjoy the glib surprises and suspense of the plot. But it is hard to imagine how any one can take, without batting an eye, a shattering air raid upon Warsaw right after a sequence of farce or the spectacle of Mr. Benny playing a comedy scene with a Gestapo corpse. Mr. Lubitsch had an odd sense of humor — and a tangled script — when he made this film. Read more.