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To Be or Not to Be (1942)
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by MP Bartley

"None More Black."
5 stars

One of humanity's strongest characteristics has always been the ability to find humour in the darkest and bleakest of situations - 9/11 jokes are fairly commonplace in many stand up comedian's routines now. The horror of Nazism and WW2 is no different, with Mel Brooks reducing the Nazis to a bad stage play and Roberto Begnini setting a comic fable in a concentration camp. Those films however were made a good few decades since the war finished, which makes To Be Or Not To Be all the more astonishing - it found humour in the Nazi invasion of Europe, in 1942, right when it was happening in front of us all.

Warsaw, 1942 and the Nazis march into Poland taking control instantly. This means the end of an anti-Nazi play that the local theatre group was producing starring it's egotistical lead man Josef Tura (Jack Benny) and his beautiful wife Maria (Carole Lombard) whose relationship is one built on squabbling and arguments. Maria also has her eye on handsome pilot Sobinski (Robert Stack), but their tryst is interrupted by the invasion, which sees Sobinski called to England to regroup for the Allied retalitation. However, through a series of smooth plot machinations, Sobinski is sent back to Poland to enlist the help of the theatre group in the capture of a double agent who is threatening to destroy the Polish underground resistance. This entails Tura teaming up with the the man trying to steal his wife, trying to pass himself of as two different people whilst someone else dresses up as Hitler.

To Be Or Not To Be is certainly not the first film to poke film at the Nazis during wartime, or indeed the most famous, with Chaplin's The Great Dictator still being as one of the most audacious films of the time. However, whilst Chaplin sweetened that bitter pill with heavy doses of slapstick, a dash of sentimentality and a strongly worded message at the end, Ernst Lubitsch does no such thing here. Sure, there's some clowning around and the film descends into high farce by the end, but there's mostly a jet black streak of humour running right throughout the film. Jokes are made about execution orders, German soldiers who'll commit suicide on instant command from their Fuhrer, and concentration camps - has there been a more shockingly dark joke than the laughing reiteration of the "So they call me concentration camp Ehrhardt do they?". Thankfully, it's also hilarious, and the whole film is tastefully and subtly guided away from tastelessness by Lubitsch, into the realm of brilliant, dazzling satire. What could have been awkward jokes about firing squads, are rendered into terrific belly laughs simply because of their sheer audaciousness, and the fact that we don't laugh at the concept of execution orders - we laugh at the German officers who treat them with the disdain of endless memos about stationary from head office.

Yet To Be Or Not To Be is not just a great film because of its audacity. Instead, it's reputation exists because of the sheer inventiveness that goes into it. The central plot could easily be taken from a Hitchcock film of the same period, and the humour is a beautifully balanced mixture of satire, slapstick (Sobinski leaving midway during Josef's performance for a rendevous with his wife is a killer of a recurring gag), farce and sheer wit, with the crackling dialogue and verbal sparring being reminiscent of His Girl Friday or the best work of Preston Sturges. Such lines as "Wait a minute. I'll decide with whom my wife's going to have dinner and whom she's going to kill" are brilliantly written and delivered even better. Lubitsch even avoids the usual pitfall of comedies and never lets the pace flag for a minute, changing gears throughout with ease.

The actor Michael Redgrave had a great admiration for comic actors, noting that "you can fool the town in tragedy, but comedy will find you out", and that's never more true than here. The film could fall flat on it's face if the cast couldn't deliver the tone of the material but they bat it out effortlessly here. Lombard and Stack are terrific, but it's Benny who is clearly the star here. An utter self obsessed, pretentious and pompous bore, Benny is a scream as Tura, who can't help asking if anyone has ever heard of "the great Polish actor, Tura" , even when he's disguised as a Nazi officer.

To Be Or Not To Be paved the way for a lot of other comedies that have dealt with similiar taboo subjects - heck, even South Park has a debt to owe here - yet perhaps none have achieved the delicate balancing act between satire and tactlessness, with such grace and such hilarity. It is no surprise that Mel Brooks starred in a 1980s remake, and no surprise also that it utterly pales besides the original. Great comedy depends on perfect timing - and the power of To Be Or Not To Be rests on the fact that Lubitsch made the right film at the exact right time.

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originally posted: 03/11/07 00:56:31
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User Comments

1/10/17 Suzanne What comic timing! Love, love, love Lubitsch. 5 stars
6/17/12 Ady boy Oh man, if only Carole Lombard was around nowadays. 5 stars
4/10/12 Black & White Aged well? Understatement. Carole Lombard we were robbed of your presence. 5 stars
10/25/11 Rita When a movie ages well as this one, it's a sight to behold. 5 stars
9/19/08 David Fowler Hysterical beyond description! A masterpiece. Benny should've had an Oscar! 5 stars
2/25/05 R.W. Welch If you don't know what the Lubitsch Touch was, watch this pic. 5 stars
2/25/05 axe R U kiddin me: lol funny, clever spoof of Hitler & 1 of my all-time favorites 5 stars
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  DVD: 01-Mar-2005



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