BY STEWART SMITH
“To Be or Not to Be” was a vital step in the evolution of Ernst Lubitsch as a director.
His romantic comedies are excellent films. They manage to transcend the sub-genre thanks to sharp writing and solid characters and just being plain fun to watch. But as good as those films are, they still feel a bit lightweight. I would happily watch them again, but I don’t necessarily consider them essential cinema.
But when World War II hit, and Lubitsch aimed his penchant for sharp, biting dialogue and aimed it squarely at the Nazi regime, the result was one of the greatest comedies of all time. The comedy came fast and with the same smart wit that was Lubitsch’s trademark, but this time it felt like it actually meant something. It was sorely unappreciated and overlooked at the time, thanks in large part due to start Carol Lombard’s untimely death around the film’s release and the fact the public had difficulty understanding why a filmmaker would take so lightly a grim subject as the Nazi occupation.
Thankfully, he didn’t take into account the public’s potential queasiness and simply went full bore making the Nazis look like utter buffoons and as such, “To Be or Not to Be” gives us the cinematic equivalent of Lubitsch thumbing his nose at Hitler for an hour and 39 minutes.
Set in Warsaw, Poland, just before the Nazis invade, we follow (that great, great Polish actor) Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) and his wife, Maria (Lombard). They’re two of Poland’s most popular stage thespians, but once the Reich begins its occupation, they’re asked to put their acting skills toward a much different task.
A German spy may soon reveal the names and locations of dozens of Jewish families in Warsaw, and it’s up to Maria to (at first) seduce him and obtain the list. However, when the spy realizes what’s going on (and gets killed in the process), it’s up to Joseph to impersonate the spy.
What’s perhaps most impressive here is that beyond the wittiest dialogue of Lubitsch’s career (which is really saying something), beyond the utter delight that is watching actors like Sig Ruman take great joy in lampooning Nazi officers and beyond the smart use of self-referentialism that half the jokes adopt, is that there is still a genuine sense of weight to what’s going on. You can see it in the shots following the initial bombing as the camera somberly lingers over the demolished store fronts bearing the names of families that Hitler would gladly snuff from the Earth forever. Lubitsch may be mocking Hitler at every turn possible, but he’s doing it from a place of genuine anger and sadness. He isn’t reductive about the atrocities the Nazis have enacted, but he was more than happy to swing at them in the best way he knew how.
We should never forget the evil that motivated the attempted extermination of the Jews (and other peoples who Hitler deemed sub-human), but I’m also A-OK with Nazis constantly being made to look like buffoons.
I’m nearly done with this series on Lubitsch, only “Heaven Can Wait” remains, but it’s been fun. Lubitsch’s work has certainly lived up to the reputation that precedes it and I’m actually kind of glad that I took so long to get around to watching his stuff. I have a much greater appreciation for it now than I perhaps would have a few years ago.
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.