starring Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart
screenplay by Edwin Justus Mayer, based on a story by Melchior Lengyel
directed by Ernst Lubitsch
by Walter Chaw Ernst Lubitsch took chances, none greater than To Be or Not to Be. Released in the first months of America's involvement in WWII, in that initial flurry of propaganda that saw the Nazis as murderous, animalistic, inhuman Hun, Lubitsch chose instead to portray them as ridiculous, as human--to make a comedy, a farce...and a masterpiece, as it happens. It's a crystallization of his work in that way: He's always more interested in foible than in oppressive arcs of personal failure--if Nazis can be seen to be possessed of the same faults as the rest of us, the same vanities, the same fears. Make no mistake, To Be or Not to Be is no olive branch. Seventy years on, it remains among the most withering satires of totalitarian governments and the politics of groupthink, but it suggests that Nazism is just one of many insufficient sops to the insecurities hardwired into us--that we're all just thin projections strutting and fretting our hour on the proverbial stage, each susceptible to things that would give relief from the pain of lack of self-confidence and identity. It's a film that seeks to explain why people create cults of personality. That it sets itself amongst a theatre troupe performing "Hamlet", itself a play that houses another play within itself (holding a mirror up to nature, indeed), makes total sense in a picture that, through this absurdity, seeks to highlight greater absurdities. Of all his great films (and when push comes to shove, I'd say Trouble in Paradise is and likely always will be my favourite Lubitsch), To Be or Not to Be is inarguably his greatest.
Consider an early moment where an extra, Greenberg (Felix Bressart), asked only to carry a spear, says that his greatest aspiration is to play Shylock, the better to deliver the "If you prick me, do I not bleed" speech. Lubitsch likely knew that "The Merchant of Venice" was, from 1933 or so on, a tool of Nazi propaganda. He knew, I want to assume, that in 1942 there was a production staged by Paul Rose in Berlin, in which planted audience members cried out in horror and derision at Shylock during the trial sequence when, let's face it, Shylock tries to commit a legally-sanctioned form of murder. Take it for what it's worth, the play in this environment made The Final Solution an act of self-defense. It's like a Tea Party meeting where people show up with Confederate flags, ne-c'est pas? First you create an Other, then you call it patriotism; now you have motive. Shakespeare was one of the only foreign playwrights not banned by the Third Reich. I believe Lubitsch knew all that when he wrote this sequence--and if he didn't, he has the fall-back of being a genius who didn't have to know it to predict it.
In 1943, Werner Krauss (of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fame) played Shylock at Vienna's Burg theatre in a production directed by a card-carrying Nazi. By all accounts, Krauss portrayed Shylock as a monster. (I want to imagine, too, that Klaus Kinski's embodiment of Nosferatu in Herzog's version is an homage to Krauss's manifestation.) Anyway, Greenberg delivers the speech wistfully, and we laugh because this is a minor actor with a large dream. He delivers part of the speech again in the sadness of the ruins post-Blitzkrieg, and we cry, because it's too terrible. When Greenberg finally does get his moment to shine, it's under unbelievably trying and dangerous circumstances, and the feeling we get then is something very much like ecstasy. I mean that in the original derivation of the word: "ex" and "stasis," standing outside oneself. It's as much a "meta" moment of disconnection illustrated by performance as the audition sequence in Mulholland Drive. Now consider that this gag is merely a parallel "shadow," an embellishment, of a primary gag involving an actor, Bronski (Tom Dugan), who has a life's ambition to play Hitler--and gets his chance, too. To Be or Not to Be is no kidding a work of real art.
And those are just three of the layers of one gag that would continue to yield if one insisted. To Be or Not to Be is a puzzle box of jokes and asides--nods to the proscenium that play like Shakespearean fourth-wall-breaking appeals and incisive character notes that deepen the drama while feeling as light as air. Tura's extraordinary narcissism matches Maria's; when war is declared, Tura thinks at first that all the uproar is for the interruption in his performance. But the way Benny plays it, we see the absolute insecurity that was always barely beneath the surface of Benny's own urbane/delicate comic persona. It's casting as elegant as Hitchcock correctly identifying Cary Grant as a bit of a reptile, or Tarantino some twenty years after the fact recognizing what it was that made Travolta so fucking exciting back when he was new. (It was melancholy.) Because Lubitsch balances Tura's cuckolding with Poland's desecration, once Tura exhibits selflessness and courage, we understand it as an allegory for the Polish resistance and somehow, in the syllogistic equation of Sobinski with the invaders, we comprehend the message that war is a personal thing with real victims and intimate ugliness. It's like the adult discovering that long-idealized sex is actually embarrassing: smelly and intensely biological. If it's possible to make an anti-war movie, make it a compelling analogue to being cheated on. Lubitsch does that.
And rather than depict the Nazis as soulless machines, he portrays Nazism as another in a perpetual line of dogmas and scriptures meant to reduce choice, knowledge, experience--the vehicles of ideology are men: flawed like us, hopeful like us, misled like us. Cults promise returns to Eden in that way, they promise the ability to un-eat the fruit and put it back on the tree. Lubitsch's Nazis know the difference between good and evil, but they've decided to let someone else worry about that, so when a group of them is ordered to jump from a plane without parachutes, they do it. On the one hand, it's a damning indictment of groupthink and fanaticism, easy to laugh at--and audiences do, without fail. On the other hand, it's condemning any apocalyptic cult following, unquestioningly, charismatic leaders into the void. The whiff of "there but for the grace of..." lingers heavy on this satire.
To Be or Not to Be isn't as narrow a thing as a criticism of Hitler and the Reich--it's as dangerous a thing as a self-reflexive critique of any unconsidered position at the expense of a perceived good. When Tura's troupe wanders, shell-shocked, through the ruins of their Warsaw, it's impossible for the modern viewer not to think of the Allied-delivered devastation of Dresden, or Hiroshima, or Tokyo in that same war, nor of the wars upon wars since that have seen the slaughter of civilians as the key to a leadership's surrender. More, it's hard as a modern American viewer not to see the ruins of the World Trade Center: a stark reminder that the mantle of victimhood shifts conflagration upon conflagration--as does, Lubitsch would be quick to remind, the mantle of the oppressor. After all, Tura agrees to kill a man without any inkling of why. To Lubitsch, "shock and awe" would have been "of course" and "yes, that again." It's no wonder the film was controversial upon its release. The overwhelming vibe of it, after all, is empathy.
Tura, Maria, and young Sobinski are drafted to spoil the plot of traitor Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), who, armed with names within the Polish resistance, has returned to Warsaw to deliver them to his masters. A seduction scene ensues and the Maria we met trying to keep up with the lies that publicity has told on her behalf ("What goldfish? What farm?") becomes a creature so capable of deflections and feints that she parries off Siletsky long enough for her husband to come, reluctantly, to her rescue. Threads of Tura and Maria's domestic squabble entangle throughout with the greater ideas and themes of the film. The Tura Company's production of their original play "Gestapo" is cancelled on the eve of its debut by a figure meant, I think, to evoke Nazi George Cyssling, the so-called "Hollywood Nazi Consul" who was tasked with quelling anti-Nazi sentiment in major studio productions under threat of an "Article 15," a boycott of American films in the German market. It's an action that causes another performance of "Hamlet" and, as it happens, another walkout by Sobinski--the final connection between the personal and the political, and To Be or Not To Be is off and running. As the theatre is evacuated and the actors take shelter in the basement, one of them says, in response to a wry comment about the lack of need to fight for "Gestapo" now, that, no, the Nazis have their own drama to act out on a bigger canvas. I think here, too, of a death scene played later in the film as a curtain rises on that same stage within a stage. There's an apocryphal tale, related in Scott Eyman's Lubitsch biography Laughter in Paradise, of a set visitor on the day of shooting the Nazis marching into Warsaw. She was an exile from Poland and "fainted dead away" at the sight of the stormtroopers goose-stepping again on a West Hollywood backlot, clarifying again the metatext of the piece--and the metatext of all film, frankly.
Shots of posted billets around occupied Warsaw--the promises of internment in Concentration Camps that, at the time, most didn't know were extermination camps--lend the piece an instant dread that's only accrued over time, while a copy of Anna Karenina is cannily used to deliver a key morsel of intelligence, it being another tale, of course, of the aristocracy on the rocks, infidelities, secrets. The series of shots up, through, and around stairway bannisters in the ghetto where we're reintroduced to the glamorous Maria is as visually forbidding as anything in contemporary noir. While Lubitsch isn't regarded as a visual filmmaker, sometimes (here and in the shadowplay of Trouble in Paradise), he has something on his mind. To Be or Not to Be ends as high-stakes farce, with the actors switching fluidly between impossible situations and sudden impersonations. It's the hotel choreography of the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera, but with the threat of torture, assassination, and rape, and with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. Although funny, closer to the truth is that it's hysterical. The energy is raw, the banter is witty, urbane, and frayed around the edges. As Geoffrey O'Brien's lovely Criterion essay on the film clarifies, the only character who isn't funny is Siletsky--not because he's demonic, but because he's pragmatic. He tells Anna that he only wants to be on the winning side. He assures her that Nazis are often very human, and Anna says, in the film's key moment, "I'm convinced of that." There are better films than To Be or Not To Be, though not many, and while I'm watching it, I can't think of a one.
Criterion brings To Be or Not to Be to Blu-ray in an outstanding 1.37:1, 1080p transfer struck from a new 2k scan of the nitrate camera negative. The image exhibits all the virtues of a nitrate source, namely rich blacks and wide, subtle dynamic range. Criterion has added their usual spit-polish without sacrificing grain or fine detail. Overall, the presentation is deliciously tactile, as near to perfect as one could hope. The LPCM uncompressed centre-channel mono audio is satisfyingly crisp, although, like the company's recent release of Medium Cool, it's mixed low, and turning it up reveals a soundtrack that has perhaps been leeched of too much noise.
David Kalat records an excellent feature-length commentary that tells the key tales of production while providing good historical background from both a Hollywood perspective and a European theatre one. I've heard much of this stuff before from various sources, chief among them the Eyman biography and William Paul's Ernst Lubitsch's American Comedy, but I did appreciate Kalat's lively comparison of To Be or Not to Be with Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, among other modern references. Well-prepared, well-studied, it's an honourable yakker for a film that rewards endless interpretations. The 2010 French documentary Le Patron (53 mins., 1080i) is staid stuff but a good primer on Lubitsch. Some rare clips of the man at home and in action make it especially worth the ride. "Vintage Radio Programs: The Screen Guild Theater" (56 mins.) offers two episodes of the titular show, the first featuring Jack Benny, the second a production of To Be or Not to Be with William Powell and Diana Lewis. They're amusing for what they are but ultimately feel like completist's fluff.
Pinkus's Shoe Palace (Schuhpalast Pinkus) (45 mins., **/****) is a 1916 German silent directed by and starring Lubitsch that resonates insofar as it contains seeds of his future brilliance. Compare this to stuff like Hitchcock's The Pleasure Garden, which it resembles in style and, to some extent, execution. For the curious, it's one in a series of films about young Berlin Jew Sally (Lubitsch) and his climb from rags to riches in the cobbler trade. Bittersweet, knowing what we know. It looks great here, by the way, in full HD. O'Brien's pamphlet essay, as mentioned above, is fantastic, truly--a smart, sharply-written overview of To Be or Not to Be that checks off its major themes and highlights. Joining it in the booklet, a Lubitsch-penned op-ed published in the NEW YORK TIMES in response to Bosley Crowther's cluck-cluck-clucking review uses too much of the "box office, bitch" argument for my liking, but lands a few cogent points about the efficacy of his film. There's something of a recognition in the essay that Lubitsch is perhaps ahead of his time and talking to idiots, but so be it. His defiance in leaving in the line about Tura doing to Shakespeare what the Nazis are doing to Poland speaks loud to the personal nature of To Be or Not to Be for Lubitsch. Damned if it doesn't become something of a personal movie for everyone once seen.