BY BRIAN BELAK
In 1939 Warsaw, before the invasion of Poland by Germany, Adolf Hitler is discovered strolling along the street, pausing to glance in the window of a delicatessen. The narrator asks, what is Hitler doing alone in Poland? Why is he eying that delicatessen? Isn’t he a vegetarian?
In this way, comedic mastermind Ernst Lubitsch opens his film To Be Or Not To Be (1942), showing at Doc Films at the University of Chicago on Sunday, June 1, and immediately establishes its satirical view of Nazism during the second World War. Although this satire was considered in poor taste at the time, modern audiences can now view the film as the classic American comedy it truly is.
The narrator soon reveals that the Hitler of the opening scene is merely a Polish actor in costume for a play about the Nazis put on by a troupe in Warsaw, and not the dictator inexplicably taking a walk in Poland. However, it is not long before the Nazis actually do invade Poland, thrusting the country into turmoil and cancelling the play. When a spy for the Gestapo, Professor Alexander Stiletsky, obtains confidential information regarding the Polish Underground, those actors reprise their roles as Nazis in an attempt to intersect the information and save Poland.
This plot is itself coupled with that of two Polish actors, Josef and Maria Tura, and a Polish aviator Stanislov Sobinski, who courts Maria behind Josef’s back. The title of the film therefore comes from the Turas’ performance of Hamlet, with Sobinski habitually leaving to visit Maria during Josef’s performance of the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. The phrase later becomes a code message sent from Sobinski to Maria during his time fighting in England.
Although the film focuses on the serious issues of World War II, Lubitsch infuses each second with dark comedy that satirizes and criticizes the actions of the Nazis, making jokes regarding their treatment of other countries and ultimately portraying them as inept and easily fooled. Contemporary reviewers criticized what they saw as an irreverent treatment, though Lubitsch was instead trying to help a country in the grips of war and prove the old saying, “laughter is the best medicine.”
Most on display is the famous and oft-praised “Lubitsch touch.” Writer/director Billy Wilder, a friend of Lubitsch’s and occasional collaborator, described the “Lubitsch touch” as “the elegant use of the Superjoke. You had a joke, and you felt satisfied, and then there was one more big joke on top of it. The joke you didn’t expect.”
To describe too many instances of the “Lubitsch touch” in To Be Or Not To Be would be to ruin their unexpected effect, but one repeated joke deserves mention. When playing Colonel Ehrhardt and meeting with the real Stiletsky to receive the information, Josef repeatedly runs out of ways to stall while the other actors in the back room devise a plan to quietly kill Stiletsky. Each time he has nothing else to say, Josef relies on the line, “So they call me ‘Concentration Camp Ehrhardt,’ eh?” to the point where Stiletsky becomes suspicious of Josef-as-Ehrhardt. With each repetition of the line, it becomes funnier and funnier, but when the scene ends, the joke is assumed to have ended as well. However, much later, when Josef is playing Stiletsky and meeting with the real Ehrhardt, one of the first lines Ehrhardt has is “So they call me ‘Concentration Camp Ehrhardt’?” recalling the Josef’s turn as Ehrhardt and adding that extra “superjoke.”
In addition to the “Lubitsch touch,” some of the best comedy comes through the acting of Jack Benny as Josef Tura. Not only is the Josef role filled with precise comedic timing and delivery, but Benny’s turns playing the disguises of Gestapo Colonel Ehrhardt and later Stiletsky are also practically perfect in their execution.
The rest of To Be Or Not To Be’s cast, including Maria’s actress Carole Lombard, who died in an airplane crash before the film’s release, are similarly great for their roles, even if they are not given as much of a chance to display broad acting talent as Benny. At one point in the film, another actor from the Polish troupe, played by Felix Bressart, uses his desire to play Shylock from The Merchant of Venice to deliver the “Hath not a Jew eyes…” speech in front of a group of Nazis, lending real dramatic weight to the otherwise comedic film.
With enough time since the events it depicts, To Be Or Not To Be can be rightfully considered a classic satire that blends comedy with respect for its subject. The film was remade in the ‘80s starring Mel Brooks (himself no stranger to Nazi comedy as shown in The Producers), but it was largely a direct copy of the original, proving that the “Lubitsch touch” is something truly unique.
For more information about Doc Films, visit docfilms.uchicago.edu.