By Noel Vera
To Be or Not to Be
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
(Another in a series of tributes to the lamentable closing of Filmstruck, which not only shows rare films like Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, but also Hollywood classics like this one — a comedy that if anything is still relevant today)
ERNST LUBITSCH’s To Be or Not to Be opened to mixed reviews and so-so box office. A picture that poked fun at Nazism and Adolf Hitler? At a time when fascism threatened to swallow the world (Pearl Harbor happened a few months before)?
Casablanca opened later that same year to better acclaim and box office; Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator opened two years earlier to good notices and business, despite being banned in parts of Europe and Latin America. This film encountered considerable resistance: Bosley Crowther in The New York Times harumphed: “To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case.”
Possibly the public (and critics’) mood was that mercurial: when Dictator came out the United States still hadn’t entered the war; Hitler was at best a looming threat in the world, wreaking havoc in faraway Europe. Casablanca never really had a problem: it had comic moments but the heroes were clearly heroic (despite a token neutrality), the Nazis hissably rotten.
To Be or Not to Be is a Lubitsch comedy, but for all the lightness Lubitsch has loaded his work with considerable meaning, from the title (originally Hamlet’s soliloquy mulling over the decision to commit suicide) to an early image of Hitler standing in the streets of Warsaw, being gawked at by surrounding Poles. Is it Hitler? Or an impersonator? Is he visiting or will he be visiting this city or not? To be or not to be?
Turns out Bronski (Tom Dugan) plays Hitler in a stage production called Gestapo — he’d been challenged as to the authenticity of his makeup and in response stepped out to measure the reaction of folks on the street. So far the reaction is everything he wished until a child (of course) steps up and asks for Mr. Bronski’s autograph.
Along with the theme of appearance vs. reality is that Lubitsch standby, the persistent need for people to be corrupt and concupiscent — Warsaw may be falling down around them and the Nazis marching down its streets but the actors of this particular theater company still feel the need to snipe, backbite, and steal scenes. Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) still has to pause as Hamlet before launching into the character’s most famous soliloquy, and he still has to dramatically pause as any bad actor would in the middle of the line (“To be — or not. To be.”). His wife Maria (Carole Lombard) still has to see that handsome young fighter pilot Lt. Sobinski (Robert Stack) who — in an underhanded comment on Joseph’s acting talents — stands up to leave for Maria’s dressing room just when Joseph utters his six opening words. People must act like people, even when the world they know is about to end; it’s an axiom to Lubitsch and by extension to us — a comfort almost.
It’s this axiom — this Lubitsch’s Law if you will — that ultimately whittles the Nazis down to size. The first time we see a member of the Gestapo he’s an actor, and if you aren’t paying attention it can be a while before you realize that something’s up. The second time is more impressive: Maria sits in a hotel room (naturally a Nazi has taken a liking to her) without permission to leave and there’s a knock on the door. She answers. An imposingly tall man asks to step inside, to wait for her dinner companion (who has been called out). Tall man doesn’t do anything, just stand there, quiet as a statue. Turns out the man is Capt. Schultz (Henry Victor), assistant to Gestapo commander Col. Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman), and while Schultz doesn’t drink and doesn’t smoke (much like his dry, smokeless Fuhrer) neither does he have much wit about him, or imagination, and Tura and his wily if wilful actors set about taking advantage of the fact.
The brave thespians first have to get past Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), an anomaly in Lubitsch’s films — a smooth urbane man who does drink and smoke and yet isn’t very funny beyond a light drollery sprinkled on his banter. He isn’t stupid — stupid would have been funny. When he’s called away to meet Ehrhardt (it’s his hotel room Maria is sitting in and her husband he’s actually meeting), Joseph Tura has taken the task of fooling Siletsky and somehow wheedling a crucial list of names from the man’s grasp. The joke is ultimately on Tura, as he reacts with genuine outrage to Siletsky’s confirmation that Sobinski is seeing Maria — Tura’s own jealousy has tripped him up, and Siletsky immediately senses this, uses this to his advantage.
The rest of the Nazis aren’t as dicey; if anything it’s the apparent monolithic enormity of their presence that’s the real challenge — which is how the two major themes dovetail into each other. Bronski walks into the streets of Warsaw dressed to look like Hitler; was he a threat? Not really; a child could see through him. Nazis march into Warsaw, after a thorough bombing (and Lubitsch, in a series of images, shows us the sad shattered storefronts, their visibly Polish names splintered into syllables) and a lot of troops. They put on, as the actors irrepressibly point out, a bigger better show but (as the actors also point out) still a show, still mounted by performers, and, as Tura’s theater company continually demonstrates and as Lubitsch suggests in one film after another, performers are still corrupt concupiscent human beings. Something to keep in mind when dealing with the Trump administration (or on a smaller scale the Duterte administration) — to paraphrase a famous phrase Billy Wilder hung up in his office (“How did Lubitsch do it?”): Lubitsch did it. He confronted a vulgar, murderously ugly regime with sophistication and subtlety, thrilling us and making us laugh in the process.
How Lubitsch did it is harder to define — you rarely catch him “directing.” Scenes play out in medium shot, in continuous takes, to allow the actors to set their rhythm and create momentum. The deadpan realism helps sell deceptions — the impersonated Hitler is shown so matter-of-factly we’re forced to accept him as real — and when people walk on or off the set (much as in theatrical farce) we’re prodded to think they are who they say they are even when they’re not (and in one brilliant occasion when we know they’re not who they say they are — and so do the Nazis — turns out [at least for said Nazis] they are). The story is from Melchior Lengyel, the plot developed by Edward Justus Mayer with uncredited contribution by Lubitsch, but perhaps Lubitsch’ most significant contribution is in developing the script & allowing it to unfold in an appropriately spacious visual style, to be interpreted by his carefully guided company of actors playing actors.
It’s a great theater company, admittedly eccentric, and part of the suspense is in wondering (as with Joseph) if the actors will sabotage themselves before they manage to sabotage the enemy: Robert Stack’s handsomely dim Sobinski in the Ralph Bellamy role; Tom Dugan’s Adolf (impassive save for one hilarious moment near the end, … when Adolf’s mustachioed stoneface cracks out of horrified embarrassment); Felix Bressart’s gently humane, ultimately moving Greenberg; Lionel Atwill’s blowhard Rawich (“What you are I wouldn’t eat” “How dare you call me a ham!”). Benny himself extends his vainglorious funnier-than-he-thinks-he-is persona on the big screen, attempting to utter Shakespeare’s most famous line without interruption. On the other side, Ruman’s continually sputtering Col. Ehrhardt (“So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt eh?”) demonstrates Nazi foibles while still winning our sympathy, and Victor’s Schultz as Ehrhardt’s towering adjutant functions beautifully as a broad cork dartboard.
Tura’s super secret weapon of course is his wife, who is, of course, the very embodiment of Lubitsch’s Law, corrupt concupiscence personified. In her last role as Maria (she would die in a plane crash only a month before the film’s opening), Carole Lombard serves as lovely point guard for the Polish resistance — delivering messages, posing as a potential Nazi recruit, schmoozing and seducing her way up the Gestapo (who can’t resist her) all the way to the very, very top, meanwhile soothing and supporting her rightly insecure husband with impassioned endearments (“Sweetheart, darling, I love you! Don’t you know that? Don’t you feel it?”) — she’s never been and never will be so heartstopping beautiful as when she’s being deceitful. At one point she confides to Siletsky: “I once played a spy. It was a great success!” Darling you’re a glorious success — wouldn’t mind being cuckolded if you would wrap your arms around me and breathed in my ear how wonderful I was.