At være eller ikke være
It takes a lot of guts to take a difficult, current tragedy and turn it into a light comedy. In hindsight it might not sound so bad, but imagine being in the midst of the Second World War and dare to come up with the idea of making a comedy that takes place in Poland featuring a theater troupe impersonating Adolf Hitler and the Gestapo. This could very easily come down as very tasteless and not funny at all.
Instead Ernst Lubitsch comedy “To Be or Not to Be” is hilariously funny and instead of being tasteless it feels exactly right. There is something very satisfying in taking these pompous Nazis and making them look ridiculous. It is the same argument Stanley Kubrick used for “Dr. Strangelove”. With a comedy you can sometimes communicate a serious issue deeper than with a drama. Certainly “To be or not to be” manages to make the Polish and their cause look sympathetic and the Nazis as idiots, evil but dumb, that you can (and should) actually fight.
To me “To Be or Not to Be” is very similar to the brilliant, but far more recent tv-series “Allo Allo”. The humor is the same. Lots of impersonating nazi brass, confusing missions and agenda’s, jealous spouses and even an airman in hiding. I loved “Allo Allo” and for the same reason am very happy with “To be or not to be”.
Central to the story are Mr. and Mrs. Tura (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard) both stars of a Warsaw theater ensemble. Joseph Tura is a quintessential prima donna for whom personal pride and adoration is always at the fore. Maria Tura is not much better. Her main vice is her love of flatter and adoration of dashing young men causing Mr. Tura to be the jealous husband. The third central player is the love struck airman Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), hopelessly in love with Maria.
Without going too much into details on the storyline it suffice to say that the troupe gets involved with the resistance after the German invasion of Poland and when a the resistance leader, Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) turn out to be a Nazi collaborator everything goes haywire and the troupe has to act the part of Nazi brass to extricate Maria and a list of names on Polish resistance leaders from the Gestapo headquarters.
This is hilariously funny. On the one hand they are very good at it. They look and act the part. However they are also totally ridiculous as they scramble to save more and more impossible situations and let their personal follies get in their way. Joseph Tura’s jealousy is again and again causing some close calls and at some point there is one too many professors. The dialogue is great, but that is only to be expected from Lubitsch. It is the comedic timing that sets this film apart. The skill with which the comedic situations are set up and resolved is just amazing. In that respect this is way ahead of Lubitsch earlier comedy “Ninotchka”, which is funny but does not enter the borderline farce territory of “To Be or Not to Be”.
That zone, which so easily tilts and become stupid, is navigated very well so we laugh but can still be engaged in the film.
There are so many excellent scenes in this film, two of my favorites must be Mr. Tura impersonating Colonel Ehrhardt, the head of the Gestapo, having a more and more worried professor Siletsky in audience. He is stalling for time repeating the lame comment “So, they call me concentration camp Ehrhardt”, which just get more and more strained. Later Mr. Tura is impersonating Siletsky visiting the real Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman). Here Ehrhardt turn out to be just as lame as Mr. Tura played him, which means that he actually played him very well, even repeating the idiotic line.
Lubitsch himself was a German Jew and while the Jewish plight during the war got shameful little attention in the media while the war went on, Lubitsch managed to insert his own little comment when lets a Jewish actor of the troupe be arrested by mock German soldiers and speak the famous lines of Shylock “Do I not bleed…”. This of course is presented as the gravest insult to the Germans, but also a reminder to the audience of the atrocities against regular people of blood and flesh that the Nazis were just then committing.
I thoroughly enjoyed “To be or not to be”. I laughed and chuckled all the way through and marveled at how well this film has aged. Surely this is a film I will not mind seeing again.