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.