I imagine that it’s impossible to fully understand the critical and public lambasting Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be received after its release unless you lived through WWII. Movies were still relatively new back then and audiences were unaccustomed to them sorting through the political rubble of people’s lives, especially in ways that fashioned comedy out of seemingly unfathomable tragedy. More than 60 years later, To Be or Not to Be is considered one of the greatest comedies in the history of cinema (compare Bosley Crowther’s review of the film in The New York Times with Charles Taylor’s Salon piece, published more than a half century later, to see how the tide has changed), poetic justice that befits the title of the film, a reference to a famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet that takes on multi-layered levels of existential meaning throughout the film.
Perhaps unjustly, To Be or Not to Be‘s wit continues to be overshadowed by its touchy plot, which concerns a theatrical troupe in Warsaw attempting to outwit the Nazis during the war. Despite its masterful opening sequence, about the confusion an actor dressed as Adolf Hitler causes a small Polish community, the film takes a while to kick into high gear. Save for the setup of the crucial “to be or not to be” motif and a memorable joke here and there (Jack Benny’s Joseph Tura telling the Jewy Mr. Greenberg “How dare you call me a ham?” and Carol Lombard’s Maria Tura complimenting Robert Stack’s flyboy for his ability to “drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes”), I never remembered the film being so uneven. To Be or Not to Be‘s second half, though, is perfect, for lack of a better word—a deft mix of acute social and political observation in the guise of an elaborate stand-up routine.
There is a joke about men buying big cars in order to make up for their shortcomings—a similar unconscious ritual of shame and self-validation seems to motivate the constant barrage of “Heil, Hitler!” salutes throughout To Be or Not to Be. It’s shocking to think that people at one time actually misconstrued the film’s humor as anti-Polish considering its obvious ridicule of the spectacle of Hitler’s aestheticized political agenda. To Be or Not to Be is largely about the interplay between art and reality and it uses modes of performance to challenge the stiffness and authority of a preposterous political regime. That the film’s comedy is as rigorous as the behavior of the Nazis in the film only makes sense—like they say, you have to fight fire with fire, or in this case, artifice with artifice.
Lubitsch and his screenwriter Edwin Justus Meyer understood the political and emotional resonance of the famous soliloquy from Hamlet. Just as Shakespeare gave Hamlet’s contemplation of suicide a political context, Lubitsch similarly offers the actors in his film an existential challenge: Frustrated by their inability to act (shortly before the Nazis invade Warsaw, their anti-Hitler play Gestapo is shut down), the actors take arms against a sea of troubles in order to live the life of the theater vicariously through their mockery of the Nazi movement that seeks to destroy them. Many of the film’s pleasures, then, derive from watching these characters successfully use the tools of the stage (improvisation, sense memory, prosthetics) to successfully subvert the Nazis.
Why are the actors in the film so good at understanding and predicting human behavior? Perhaps it’s because these rebels, namely Benny’s ham, are in touch with their insecurities in ways that elude the Nazi buffoons they target. Jack is forced to frequently look like the fool throughout the film, a role (and weakness) he accepts and sorts through, something that can’t be said about Sig Ruman’s Col. “Concentration Camp” Ehrhardt, who repeatedly shifts the blame for everything he does to one of his lackeys. Maybe that’s what pissed so many people off about To Be or Not to Be: Though it’s impossible to imagine governments using actors as spies (at least not in the way the film employs them), it really does seem that the makers of the film understood the psychosis that motivated Hitler’s regime in ways that the Allies did not.
I won’t try to define the fabled “Lubitsch Touch” because I maintain that it’s an emotional and sensual sensation that’s best experienced and left undefined (in honor of its mystery, even if the term was really just a product of marketing hype), but I have to say that To Be or Not to Be very much exhibits the German-born director’s signature aesthetic and spiritual approach, despite what has been written to the contrary: If there is a difference between To Be or Not to Be and The Shop Around the Corner it is only that Lubitsch forgot to cut his nails before making the former.