Title: To Be or Not To Be
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Length: 99 Minutes
Genre: Dark Comedy, War
Right in the throes of World War II, one film was brave enough to laugh in its face and make fun of the enemy that was conquering Europe bit by bit. The sheer guts it took to even make a movie like this at the time is admirable and despite the danger, it may have created, it was still released and not to great praise either. Audiences could not grasp why they would create a film that mocked a serious threat in the world and critics found it to be in poor taste. Jack Benny’s own father apparently walked out of the theatre after seeing his son in a Nazi uniform.
The movie follows a troupe of actors in Poland right when the Nazis invaded in World War 2. Through their high status and a forbidden love affair, the troupe gets intertwined with a plot involving a spy and a list of members of the underground, causing them to create deceptions right in the Gestapo headquarters to retrieve the list and escape to Britain. Farce-like in nature the film involves an ensemble of wild characters, misunderstandings and a lot of quick thinking on the character’s parts to get out of tricky situations (one of which involves the lead disguising himself as the spy to meet the head of the Gestapo only for the spy’s dead body to show up). It’s a fun and wild ride from start to finish and the laughs keep coming.
The films strength is its satire that blends mockery of the foolishness of Nazis, with the head of the Gestapo and his second-hand man both being complete dolts, and the narcissism of actors, with the two leads, Josef and Maria, played brilliantly by Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, constantly finding their egos challenged even in the worst moments (Jack Benny has a great comedic moment where he’s completely devastated by an audience member walking out on him while everyone is talking about the invasion of Poland). The movie allows you to have a big laugh at everyone on screen while still making it engaging enough that you want the leads to succeed in their plan. To ground it all, the film features a great secondary character, Greenberg, played by Felix Bressart, who is explicitly Jewish and dreams to one day play Shakespeare’s Shylock on the stage, a dream that has a fantastic payoff in the film that uses Shylock’s monologue in an incredibly poignant way.
All the actors are in top shape here, with Jack Benny and Carole Lombard turning in performances worthy of Oscars. Their dead pan delivery offers some fantastic dry humour throughout, which is a shame because Carole Lombard, unfortunately, died before the movie was released and never got a chance to be what was considered one of her best performances. I’ll be honest, I haven’t seen any of her other films but her performance is definitely a highlight of the film. Robert Stack brings in a great performance as the young fighter pilot who drags the actors into the nazi plot, worthy to be compared to his performance in Airplane! He switches from doe-eyed and love-struck to a determined fighter ready to do anything for his country effortlessly.
This movie would eventually be remade in 1983 by none other than Mel Brooks, which is rather fitting for the director. His version ups the comedy a bit and has all the characters played as caricatures rather than straight and is a great revisioning of the film as well. Both are equally great in their own ways and Mel Brooks, I find, even makes some minor yet great changes that help the satire of the film, such as changing Maria’s assistant from an old lady to a gay man and having the wardrobe lady bring in her incredibly large Jewish family to hide out in the theatre. If you enjoyed this one I would highly suggest watching the Mel Brooks remake.
I would highly recommend this film to anyone who loves comedy and world war 2 films, a specific niche I know. It delivers on every aspect of filmmaking and the fact that it came out when it did gives the movie some weight that most movies making fun of Nazis might not have. And although the old style of dry, straight humour might not be for everyone, the twists and turns the film takes is enough for anyone to enjoy. It’s quickly become one of my favourite films and it definitely deserves its spot on this list.