Just two years after Chaplin fully lampooned Adolph Hitler [with names changed], German emigre Ernst Lubitsch stepped up the game with To Be or Not to Be. So few films were able to tackle the intricacies of World War II as it was happening, so seeing both of these films doing it with humor is both impressive and risky [another film, Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die got the Related Review treatment during our recent week on M]. By 1942, the world didn’t know or understand the level of atrocities happening in the concentration camps across Europe and the United States was only recently involved at all. To Be or Not to Be, however, was direct and decisive in targeting the Nazi party not only for their inhumane worldview but also their incompetent bureaucracy.
To Be or Not to Be opens with an alluring image over an excited reading of narration: Adolph Hitler, typical scowl across his face, walks the streets of pre-war Warsaw for reasons undetermined. He stops in front of a delicatessen—”That’s impossible!” says the voice-over, “He’s a vegetarian!” Perhaps he wants to eat up Poland.
The film centers on a famous theatre troupe, headlined by husband-and-wife stars Maria [Carole Lombard] and Joseph Turia [Jack Benny] as they stage Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the dawn of the Nazi occupation. As Maria begins a backstage affair with an army pilot [with a hilarious running gag for their many rendezvous], their relationship inadvertently brings the actress into a web of Nazis, spies, doppelgangers, and disguises. The troupe all become part of the plot, as it were, leading to a daring escape out of Poland with the Führer himself at arm’s length.
If the characters and setting sounds something like a Mel Brooks film—clearly it was an influence on The Producers—you should know that the director starred in a thoroughly lesser Alan Johnson remake in 1983. Another film that was greatly and obviously influenced is Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which takes its theatre-set finale in a much different direction but is full of the double agent intrigue of To Be or Not to Be.
To Be or Not to Be, like The Great Dictator, is thoroughly a comedy, though it hits the horrors of war a bit harder than its predecessor—perhaps because it has two more years of insight. While The Great Dictator makes Nazi occupation personal to its set of characters [especially its effect on Paulette Goddard’s Hannah], Lubitsch’s film focuses on a broader context. Shortly into the film, we see the complete destruction of Warsaw. The film then becomes a pretty convincing spy thriller in its own right while always keeping the trademarked “Lubitsch touch.” The film’s ability to be so taut and suspenseful in the midst of a silly ensemble comedy is remarkable and pays dramatic dividends by the end.
But we can’t forget about the laughs and there are plenty of them. Overall, the silly physical and verbal style of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator might elicit more guffaws, but To Be or Not to Be has a cleverness that builds. Gags like a particular fake beard pay off multiple times, scenes apart. Benny is particularly good in the second half of the film when his esteemed actor character gets to play with real stakes, portraying multiple roles. It really shows that both the character and the actor really relish the opportunity. It isn’t afraid to go after the easy silly jokes, either—such as each and every “Heil Hitler” said with just the right amount of self-awareness.
Thankfully we live in a world where we don’t have to choose between The Great Dictator and To Be or Not to Be, but the latter is definitely overshadowed in the canon. To Be or Not to Be may be a much less political film about Hitler, but it makes up for it with sheer entertainment, melding the spy thriller and comedy perfectly. From the films I’ve seen by Lubitsch, he’s never seemed to be much of a political filmmaker, even if he had personal or emotional ties to the political landscape in his homeland. In this approach, it is an interesting complement to The Great Dictator, but it undoubtedly stands on its own. For its heart without overt sentimentality, comedy that stands realistically in this dangerous world, and more heightened stakes, there may be those who would prefer it outright.