When To Be or Not to Be was released in 1942, the world was in the throes of war. The film mocked and satirized the Nazi regime. Naturally, there were people who questioned if it was something that should have been made.
Its main plot focuses on a troupe of Polish actors led by the husband and wife team of Joseph and Maria Tura (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard). As a clever, self-referential touch, the company is introduced by Lubitsch as producing a satirical play about the Nazis at the height of tensions between Germany and Poland. Once the Germans invade Poland however, all operations stop. The Turas and their cohorts are then thrust into a tight situation when a certain Polish Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) is suspected of treachery and tries to recruit Maria as a spy. From here on, the film deftly juggles mystery, suspense and intrigue along with biting satire to make what is easily the most brilliant of all the pictures I’ve seen from the director.
While there’s something oddly subversive about such a film being directed by a German right in the middle of World War II, it’s still classic Lubitsch at its core: It’s light, elegant and sophisticated despite the theme. He gets solid work from the entire ensemble down to the supporting cast, and even though the central narrative is not nearly as strong as the comedic commentary that accompanies it, it makes for a sturdy enough backbone for the film’s loftier plans.
Those plans are typified by Lubitsch’s ability to extract the most brutally honest hilarity during the bleakest moments of human history, as all great satires are able to do. The jokes are sharp, witty, well setup and impeccably timed. Most intriguingly though, they are cleverly multifaceted, with the dialogue and situations often repeated – not for the sake of emphasis – but because the differing contexts give rise to layers that make the film profound and poignant in more ways than one.
At one point in the film Joseph Tura poses as a certain Col. Ehrhardt of the Gestapo in an attempt to pacify Siletsky. In the course of their conversation, the professor tells him of his reputation in London.
“You’re quite famous, Colonel,” he says. “They call you Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.”
As the meeting goes on, with Tura needing to stall the professor, he quips, “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt, huh?” and then again and again to comically break the awkward silence, “So they really call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt!”
Then, later on in the film, with Tura now posing as the professor, he meets the real Col. Ehrhardt and echoes the lines of Siletsky, “Colonel, you’re quite famous in London. You know what they call you? Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.”
To which the real, bumbling Ehrhardt reacts, “Oh, they do, do they? So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt!”
“I thought you would react just that way,” Tura responds. And laughter ensues.
We laugh first and foremost because it lampoons the Nazi army. But more accurately, we laugh because the cold-hearted nature and extreme cruelty of the oppressors rings true. It is comedy as a reflection of life, which makes for the best comedy in that it is hilarious and at the same time chilling. So, while easily the funniest Lubitsch that I’ve seen, with the jokes coming in such rapid-fire succession unseen from the other of the director’s films, the brilliance of To Be or Not to Be is in how it manages to be a sharp and witty reflection of truth in the midst of all the laughter.
To the question of whether or not it should have even been made, as the great satirist Kurt Vonnegut once said: “Jokes can be noble. Laughs are exactly as honorable as tears. Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion, to the futility of thinking and striving anymore. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward — and since I can start thinking and striving again that much sooner.” I would imagine that Lubitsch had the same thing in mind when he and his cast and crew set out to make To Be or Not to Be right in the middle of World War II.
Rating: A (excellent)