To Be or Not to Be
To Be or Not to Be
1942. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
"Shall we drink to a blitzkrieg?"
"I prefer a slow encirclement."
One of the greatest comedies ever made, To Be or Not to Be was groundbreaking, dark, and critically panned upon release for its satire of the invasion of Poland by the Nazis.
A less than stellar Polish actor and his starlet wife become embroiled in a complicated espionage mission to save the Polish resistance from the Gestapo. Enlisting the help of their theater troupe and using their acting skills as weapons, the pair embark on a farcical cloak and dagger masquerade to save their country from evil.
In order to get into the heart of this film, it's important to remember the time period. Lubitsch made this film while Hitler was surging towards of world supremacy. The jokes were offensive to many and yet brutally, hilariously real. This drew an unusual amount of anti American claims and put the film into critical oblivion . However, this is the film's strength. It's an uncompromising deconstruction of the patriotic propaganda of the Nazis and simultaneously a scathing satire of performers wrapped in a surprisingly dangerous package. Thankfully, decades later, the film has been critically resurrected.
Jack Benny and Carole Lombard star as the acting duo. This was Lombard's last role before her tragic death and what an amazing final performance. The screwball queen steals every scene with her intoxicating beauty and comedic delivery. Legendary icon Benny gives one his finest performances as the not so great actor who does his best work when off stage, impersonating the very real wolf at the door.
The entire cast revels in their roles, embracing the idea that performers are always giving a show, even in the most direr circumstances. Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman, and Tom Dugan all shine as friends and foes who are all playing roles themselves, each character walking a razor line between acclaim and peril.
This is a heavy story, brought to life by Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Mayer's immensely entertaining script. Just like it's characters, To Be or Not to Be walks a tightrope between constantly at odds themes, highlighting the very real horrors of the Nazi occupation with uncomfortably side splitting mayhem. You're are always smiling, but simultaneously squirming in your seat as the characters face typical wrong place, wrong time scenarios with possibly lethal results.
Werner Haymann's excellent score was the only academy nomination the film received, and it's wonderfully subdued, complimenting the action. Rudolph Mate's cinematography is steady and restrained, letting his subjects do all the work. Julia Heron's set design delves into the film's central concept of illusion. Entire rooms are not what they seem while other buildings are used for purposes other than what they were intended for. Irene Lentz's costuming is another conspirator, making it impossible to tell who is who and delirious abandon has never been more fun, or relevant.
Available now to stream with Huluplus or on blu ray via The Criterion Collection, To Be or Not to Be is an excellent comedy, a thrilling spy film, and an important example of rogue film making. It's easy to decry it from a far. Benny's own father left the theater midway through the film and had to be dragged back by the actor. In the end, he saw the film in theaters several dozen times. That's the pure magic of this movie. Lubitsch made a film that takes true evil head on and defeats it with laughter and the most important weapon in any war: hope.