To Be or Not to Be (1941)
The more we discover about Ernst Lubitsch’s films the more we can understand the Hollywood Cinema of today. His films of the 1930’s and 1940’s are the cornerstone of filmmaking. His comedies of the pre and post Code are hilarious and intelligent. Just watch his very efficient Ninotchka, Design For Living, The Shop on the Corner, and Trouble in Paradise to discover his range of work. The quality of the scripts and the sober “mise en scène” of his films are particularly noticeable. François Truffaut, in his book Les films de ma vie, made a great homage to this master from Vienna.
To Be or Not to Be tells the story of a theatre troop in Warsaw who escapes from the Nazis by portraying Generals, Professors, and the Fuhrer of the Third Reich. This comedy plays on many levels, first there is the main couple of the troop. Him, , thinks that he is the greatest Warsaw Theatre actor and her, Carole Lombard in her final role before her tragic death, has a secret lover while her husband is on the stage doing his monologue. Slowly the story gets mixed up and every character is asked to perform in a way to distract the Nazis and escape from what could be a horrible denouement. Even if some elements of the script are unlikely the moments of laughter are memorable as for some performances and lines.
Plus, it clearly influenced Quentin Tarantino on the writing of his Inglourious Basterds script especially the setting of the story and how a little group of individuals could resist and trick the Nazis. But, don’t forget the other influences from Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, Sergio Leone, the original Inglorious Bastards, and many other films.
What’s strongly important to remember about Lubitsch’s film is how his comedies are strongly structured and how they play on many levels of stories and humour. Like Chaplin’s Great Dictator, To Be or Not to Be is a comedy mocking Adolf Hitler and his party, but the two films take this persona and make it a subject of laughter and derision. They happen before the discovery of the Holocaust and the seriousness of the situation excluded any pretext to make comedies about it. Those films witness how Hitler was perceived outside of Germany, in To Be or Not to Be the menace it represented is easily passed by to help the course of the story. Even today films like these couldn’t be done because the subject is still sensible and comedies turned to lighter subject and aren’t as politicized as they were at the time of these two great masters.
It is refreshing to watch To Be or Not to Be because it brings a different light on the perception of Nazi Germany. As horrible as this era was, the fictional treatment of these events is intelligent and appealing. I highly recommend this dashing film.