To Be or Not to Be

Hidden Gems

No, I’m not talking about Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 action film Inglorious Basterds.

Arianna Muñoz

See if you’ve heard this story before: it’s the 1940s and the Nazis are sweeping across Europe, causing a reign of terror unlike any before. There is oppression and degradation, torture and genocide, but amidst it all emerges a group of unlikely heroes, a band of resistance fighters ready to do whatever it takes to sabotage the Nazi occupation. As they hatch their plans and disguise themselves as Nazis in order to sneak their way into a theatre, one question hangs ominously in the air; will they make it out alive?

No, I’m not talking about Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 action film Inglorious Basterds, I’m talking about the 1942 comedy To Be or Not to Be, one of the most daring, provocative, and oddly hilarious films in Western cinema. One wouldn’t think of “World War II” and “comedy” being in the same sentence; indeed, to many it would be offensive to suggest such a thing However, under Ernst Lubitsch’s masterful direction, To Be or Not to Be expertly toes the line, achieving the perfect balance of comedy, drama, and thriller, all while remaining full of gravity and pathos.

Where Inglorious Basterds centres on a group of hardened resistance fighters, To Be or Not to Be follows the escapades of a Polish theatre troupe unwittingly caught up in the fight to undermine the Nazi regime. Josef Tura, played by a dry and sarcastic Jack Benny, and his wife Maria (a clever and fiery Carole Lombard) are the troupe’s stars - when Maria is recruited into the underground resistance, Josef and the rest of the troupe must help her prevent vital information from falling into the hands of the Nazis through the use of costumes, acting, and an array of theatrical tricks.

The comedy of To Be or Not to Be is sharp and dry, crackling with energy. Like a Shakespearean comedy of errors, plots and subplots overlap and intersect, disguises, love triangles, and switched loyalties all jumble into a complex whirl until brought together and resolved in an expertly crafted climax. Indeed, Shakespeare makes multiple appearances through repeated references to Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice, as apparent by the film’s title. There are jokes and sarcastic one-liners abound: Josef and Maria jab back and forth, mocking each other’s acting abilities, success, and faithfulness (a subplot involves Maria’s flirtations with an infatuated pilot) and fears of being killed while infiltrating Nazi headquarters are assuaged with a reassuring “we’re gonna keep our fingers crossed”. An actor disguised as Hitler even responds to cries of “Heil Hitler!” with a straightforward “heil myself.”

However, despite the light-hearted tone of these jests and trickery, the graveness of the reality is never forgotten. The scene of the invasion of Warsaw is harrowing, the camera gazing on the ruins of a once vibrant city as Nazi troops march past weeping women, horrified elders, and shell-shocked children. Deliberate focus is given to the various notices posted on shops and walls: not obeying curfew is punishable by imprisonment, attacking a Nazi leads to “summary arrest and internment in concentration camp.” The Nazis, although mocked and ridiculed, are portrayed as real threats capable of inflicting serious harm. The bumbling Colonel Erhardt (jovially known as “Concentration Camp Erhardt” to his fellow fascists) is just as menacing as he is foolish. His cunning and ability to see past clever disguises, which sends people to their deaths, is only defeated when his devotion to Hitler is used against him. Although satiric and often light-hearted, To Be or Not to Be makes it clear that in this world silliness, trickery, and quick-thinking are not just elements of comedy – they’re tools of survival.

Lubitsch had a personal investment in directing this film. As a German-Jewish filmmaker, he left his home country to work in America, directing such classics as Ninotchka and The Shop Around the Corner, and was reviled by Nazi leadership, who frequently targeted him in their anti-Semitic propaganda. Although the words “Jew” and “Judaism” are never explicitly mentioned in To Be or Not To Be, Lubitsch’s meaning is not lost when the character of Greenberg identifies with Shylock’s passionate “If you prick us, do we not bleed” speech in The Merchant of Venice, or cracks jokes about his fellow actor’s abilities (“What you are, I would not eat.”, “How dare you call me a ham!”). Indeed, Greenburg’s rendition of Shylock’s speech is perhaps the most moving portion of the film – a Jew surrounded by Nazis, threatened with internment and execution, eloquently and passionately demanding his right to be seen as human.

Released in 1942, right in the middle of World War II, To Be or Not to Be is a film that depicts both the best and worst of humanity, filled with moments of subversion, satire, and ridicule that slowly but steadily tear apart at fascism. It is a film in which the tropes and expectations of comedy and drama are forced into confrontation, and the positivity of comedy is challenged by the harsh realities of drama. But Lubitsch is prepared for this, in To Be or Not to Be, Lubitsch ultimately chooses not to settle for the happily ever after ending of comedy, or the utter tragedy and realism of drama, but rather a middle: escape, freedom, and a moment of relief.


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