It is no small feat to create a narrative that is anything but dreary and preoccupied with loss and death during a war time era, this proves true for the previous post regarding A Matter of Life and Death which situates itself as a romance story amidst the death of war. I assumed that comedy, while certainly present within the era would find itself entirely relegated to efforts relating to the warfront or training buddy films, never to step foot onto the fields of battle where such levity would invariably be misguided and executed poorly. More so, I entirely dismissed the possibility that a film could emerge from a setting involving any sort of concentration camp/occupied country space, specifically Poland. However, Ernst Lubitsch's uproariously funny and poignantly serious To Be or Not To Be manages to be exactly the film to prove that when considering comedy, almost anything is fair game as long as those creating the jokes and humor know what they are doing and execute it with the appropriate respect and understanding it deserves. On paper, nothing about To Be or No To Be should really work, between Polish citizens passing as Hitler and a oft-repeated joke involving infidelity and Shakespearian monologues, the film, one would assume, would either become heavily dated or better be served as a contemporary remake (Mel Brooks actually remade this film later in his career, which makes complete sense considering the subject matter and degree of serious commentary underlying the jokes). Of course, cinematic history is filled with a ton of examples of unexpected moments in a movement, films that disregard the expectations or demands of the time to create something truly though-provoking and challenging, while also affording the moviegoer the desired escapism necessary for a great piece of non-experimental cinema. It should me noted that To Be or Not To Be indeed has moments in which the gravitas of Nazi occupation invades the narrative, and deservedly so since it was an event that occurred and negatively affected whole nations, however, it is also worth considering that to people experience the real traumas, both abroad and personally, finding humor where possible proved greater a good than initially imaginable.
To Be or Not To Be focuses on the experiences of a Polish theater group at the onset of Hitler's moving through Europe, in which the troupe, full of idealistic actors attempt to provide escapism to their community by putting classic works like Hamlet, as well as plays parodying the infamous leader. Although the group of actors are not particularly brilliant at their work, especially the leading couple Joseph (Jack Benny) and Maria Tura (Carole Lombard) who spend far more time bickering than they do assuring their success, in fact, their constant feuding comes to heightened state when Joseph realizes that Maria is talking with a young officer who constantly visits her during his performance of Hamlet's most famous lines, from where the film draws its title. Hoping to catch her in the act, his attempt is halted by the announcement that Hitler has just invaded the border of Poland and, therefore, leads the group to refocusing their efforts on resistance. This resistance proves well-organized and relatively efficient, although the power of the German army is far too great and Poland eventually succumbs to Nazi rule, much to the disconcertion of those still living there, particularly Joseph and Maria. When the young soldier with whom Maria has taken a liking one Stobinski (Robert Stack) attempts to send a message to his new love via Professor Salinsky (Stanley Ridges) an assumed ally to the Polish, he is put off by Salinsky's complete ignorance to the famous Maria. This information leads to suspicions of Salinksy being a spy and the resistance takes up a counter-intelligence movement in the hopes of trapping Salinsky and preventing him from betraying Stobinski and the other members of the town. Considering that the group is a set of actors, they find their best course of action to be pretending to be high ranking SS officials, to which Salinsky has no knowledge of in physical terms. This ruse works, until the set of actors go a bit overboard with their performance, ultimately, leading to their killing Salinsky in an ultimate form of silence. At this point Joseph undertakes the role of Salisnky, now hoping to trick the Nazis a feat the works for length enough to extract the resistance from Poland, but not after one of the members passes as Hitler. The group escapes to Scotland where their story is revered and Joseph earns the ability to play Hamlet, although in a clever final twist, another young man steps away amidst his monologue, fueling yet another layer of suspicion for the overly sensitive actor.
It is no difficult task to suggest that To Be or Not To Be is a film that is expressly concerned with performance, in fact, the performing of a theater troupe always influences the narrative, even in its more emotionally heightened moments, where their resistance movement acts take on a political level, most powerfully captured in their graffiti of Hitler hanging from the gallows. However, I mean to refer to the notion of performing power, or at the very least appropriating the images of authority to pass as knowledgable in a moment of fear and ignorance. Professor Salinsky, one of the characters decided villains arguably betrays others in the vain hopes that it will afford him safety against the ever encroaching armies of Germany. It is fair to say that he is performing betrayal, because he sees it as a means to save his own skin, not so much as a genuine act of loathing. He has no power within the Nazi army, evidenced by his inability to identify fake versions of key figures. Furthermore, his own foolish belief that he can perform properly allows him to place a problematically high amount of trust in Maria who he convinces to be a spy. Maria eternally tied to the resistance, nonetheless, performs the role of support to Salinsky, a illogical move in the eyes of others not because she would chose to side with Germany, but because she would be swayed in her decision by such an unattractive man. Joseph arguably has the most to lose or gain from each performance, taking the risks of passing as people in the face of immediate danger, whether pretending to be Colonel Erhardt when Salinksy initially returns to Poland or reversing the process by pretending to Salisnky when he meets with Erhardt (Sig Rugman) played up humorously when the conversations seem to mirror one another. Passing, in the case of this film requires a heavy degree of audacity and willingness to stretch beyond comfort, an act made possible perhaps by the very real threat failure assures. However, it is also contingent on a power dynamic that is predicated upon blind obedience, affirmed by a fear of Hitler emerging, and, ultimately, a cowering of his fake presence, even by the most trusted of his advisors. Infamy allows for silence, which for the most part is problematic, but when tested it can allow for those oppressed to earn safety. Yet Lubitsch reminds people that a certain degree of performance pulls from reality and the Shylock part that draws the group its final bit of safety is as much pretend as it is is enflamed by a real question of suffering in the face of evil.
Key Scene: For a decidedly comedic film the maddening imagery of the initial resistance acts and the Nazi occupation might be some of the most intense of the entire World War II era.
I watched this completely unaware of an upcoming Criterion release, I would suggest holding off until that bluray comes about, it is certain to be visually stunning.