To Be Or Not To Be (1942)

Jack Benny, Carole Lombard and the theater group from To Be or Not To Be

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)

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The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans

It’s a peculiar experience to see a film starring Daniel Day-Lewis where he either wasn’t the most interesting actor or didn’t play the most interesting role. In most of his other films, he disappears into the character. He was Bill the Butcher. He was Daniel Plainview. He was Abraham Lincoln. In The Last of the Mohicans, he’s just a good actor making the most of a dull role. For the first time, I’ve seen him give a performance that I can easily see being done by another actor with half his talent.

More fascinating than his Hawkeye is that of the English Major, Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington). He gives off an aura like Javert from Les Miserables. Not as cold, but just as firm regarding his strict principles, patriotism and adherence to duty. In spite of this, there are scenes that subtly hint at his turn of heart and unlikely sympathy. That internal conflict is what makes him among the more interesting aspects of this movie, and it culminates in a surprising turn during the film’s climax.

Another thing peculiar about The Last of the Mohicans is it being a historical epic in Michael Mann’s filmography. As a director who typically excels in action-thrillers, it’s curious to see him weave together multiple dramatic narratives set against the backdrop of the Seven Years’ War. He not only tackles the conflict between England and France, but also the struggles of the local militia, a Native American’s quest for revenge and, of course, a love story. Interestingly enough, he succeeds in telling most of these tales, which brings me to the oddest thing about the film.

For the first time in a Michael Mann movie, the action sequences are what left me bored and uninterested. A lot of it was messy, unfocused and fell flat as if the efficacy of his stylized direction gets overwhelmed by the grandiose scope of this wartime period piece. He nails the beautifully sweeping cinematography, costumes and production design needed for such an epic, but for Mann’s standards it feels safe. The most compelling scenes turn out to be the ones that have very little action going on. The best ones in particular include one where the French & English army negotiate the latter’s terms for surrender, one at the end involving talks with the chief of the a native American tribe, and one in particular with Madeline Stowe stretching her acting chops as she argues fiercely against the charges of sedition against her lover.

On a narrative level, it’s a story layered with multiple conflicts, both external and internal, all handled very deftly. That’s not to say that it’s without fault, as I personally could have done without any of the romantic angles, which is – I’ve come to learn – something that Mann doesn’t do very well. Yet even then, the narrative of The Last of the Mohicans is easily much more engaging that anything else about it, which is not something I thought I’d ever say about a Michael Mann film.

Rating: C+ (average)