When making a comedy about a serious, emotionally traumatic event, filmmakers usually have to gauge whether or not the public is ready for its cinematic treatment. Several U.S. filmmakers forayed into the Iraq War while it was at its height and the public responded with resounding indifference. It has to be immeasurably more difficult to time the public’s receptiveness to a comedy about such as event. Comedy is hard enough under the best of circumstances, but writers and directors usually want to avoid theaters not just devoid of laughter, but chalk full of indignation. “Too soon?” they might ask while shrugging.
With To Be Or Not to Be, director Ernst Lubitsch not only didn’t bother with considerations of the public’s delicate sensibilities, but openly flaunted them and, in the process, made one of the greatest comedies of all time about, of all things, the Nazi occupation of Poland. Most filmmakers shied away from making a comedy about the Nazi occupation of Poland in 1942, when the Nazis were still kicking up their boots in Warsaw. It would have be akin to making a madcap comedy about September 11 while rescue workers were still digging through the rubble in Manhattan. (OK, maybe it’s not exactly an equivalent example; people had several years to get accustomed to the horrors of Nazi occupation while the world was shocked by September 11 in a matter of hours. Still I think the spirit is the same.)
Lubitsch, from a script by Edwin Justus Mayer, finds the perfect tone, a careful balance between madcap comedy and a serious meditation on the nature of freedom and the responsibilities it entails. In the film, Joseph and Maria Tura are a pair of famous Polish actors who get caught up in the initial invasion in 1939 and later become embroiled with Nazi spies, the Polish underground, and Gestapo stooges, despite their own overwhelming vanity and egocentricity.
Carole Lombard shines (as always) as Maria Tura in her final role before a tragic plane crash took her life. Lombard’s Maria is flighty, flirty, and, at first glance, completely useless anywhere other than, maybe, a stage (though we never really see Maria at work and can’t judge her ability). She begins an innocent (?) flirtation with a handsome young flier (Robert Stack), arranging to meet him in her dressing room while her hammy actor husband Joseph is on stage reciting Hamlet’s To Be Or Not to Be soliloquy, when she knows they will have plenty of time and Joseph won’t be able to disturb them. It is during one of these meetings thatGermanyinvades and the life that Joseph and Maria once had, where critics and ticket sales were the only serious considerations, is turned on its head and they get involved in a Nazi plot to capture and kill all the key members of the Polish underground. They, along with the colorful characters they work with in the theater, vow to stop the Nazi plan and save the Underground.
To Be Or Not to Be is slick, thoughtful, and, above all, immensely funny. Even Jack Benny turns in a good performance. He may have been a great radio and television talent, but his film career was decidedly lackluster, though you wouldn’t know it judging from this film.
But Lubitsch’s film is more than a vehicle for Jack Benny or a mindless comedy. It suggests that even those who appear the most frivolous in society are capable of rising to the fight against foreign occupation and tyranny. Some of the most ill-informed and apolitical will be roused to action when they see their cities and homes occupied, their friends and neighbors arrested, freedom squashed, and national identity subsumed by violence. And this, the movie argues, is why fascism will fail. It needs violence, intimidation, and repression to succeed and these tools can provoke even the silliest, like the Turas, to work against it.