To Be or Not to Be is an incredibly hilarious film, and also a very daring one. Released in 1942, soon after its star’s, Carole Lombard, death, it makes light of the Nazis, and some would even say of the occupation of Poland itself. Lampooning a troupe of selfish Polish actors and the Gestapo at once, no one can escape Lubitsch’s wit.
The film tells the story of how a Polish theater troupe helps to foil a Nazi spy plot during World War II. The film begins as the actors are rehearsing a new anti-Nazi play, which the government cancels right before the invasion. The actors are now all out of work, but luckily still possess their skills of Nazi- impersonation. The stars of the show are Josef and Maria Tura (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard), and through Maria’s flirtation with a young airman, Stanislaw Sobinsky (Robert Stack), get drawn into stopping a Nazi spy posing as an influential intellectual, Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges). The actors are their own worst enemies, as their vanities threaten to get in the way of their duty to their country.
While it’s certainly questionable to set a comedy in occupied Poland, it works very well outside of its time period. Today, it’s not unusual to see Hollywood portray Nazis as objects of fun now that the danger has passed, but in the middle of the war it must have been a bit harder for audiences to take. One of the best things about this movie is that its humor sometimes dips into poignancy. There’s a Jewish actor, Greenberg (Felix Bressart), who dreams of playing Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice and finally gets to perform his speech defending the humanity of Jews in front of a bunch of Nazis. The way this is done is masterful. You see him throughout the film, mourning his lack of success, and he performs the speech several times to his friends. It’s a triumphant moment when he gets to do it for real, even if it’s not on a stage. There’s another bit of humor that’s actually pretty horrific. It’s played as humor, but when an actor posing as a Nazi orders a real Nazi to jump from a plane without a chute, only to be surprised when he actually does, it becomes horrifying the amount of unthinking obedience the Nazis had to one man. The film doesn’t dwell on these things, but instead allows you to realize them, making them all the more effective.
But most of the comedy is for good old fashioned laughs, and let me tell you, it definitely works. I laughed very hard during this film! There are countless instances of poking fun at the Nazis, the most memorable of which is how they are constantly trying to save their own skins by blaming each other when things go wrong and the robotic “Heil Hitlers!” If they want to break up a conversation, all the actors have to do is start saluting and the Nazis completely loose their trains of thought! The rest of the comedy is directed at the actors. They are always, Josef in particular, trying to emphasize their own star quality over the job at hand. They frequently get distracted because they are trying to make themselves seem more important, but luckily they end up getting the job done anyway.
I was really impressed by the acting in this film. This could be because I haven’t hardly any of these actors before, but nevertheless they all worked together perfectly. The comedic timing is just wonderful here. I got a kick out of how Benny’s onscreen character closely matched his radio persona. His performance was originally scorned by critics, but I think he did a great job. He had me laughing a lot, and that’s what counts anyway. Carole Lombard received most of the film’s too few praises, but deservedly nonetheless. The film suffers a bit at the end because she is absent for a time. On the directorial side of things, most of the time Lubitsch just gets out his actors’ ways, but occasionally he’ll focus on an important object with a fast camera move similar to the type of shots Hitchcock is known for. They stand out considerably because the camera just follows the actors most of the time.
I really, really enjoyed this film. It comes highly recommended. Though I understand why it would upset some at the time it was released, I think its heart is in the right place and should be pretty enjoyable to most audiences now. This film is really smart, really funny, and really well made. You owe it to yourself to check it out.
“Well Colonel, all I can say is… you can’t have your cake and shoot it too!”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars