Friday, June 08, 2018

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

USA, 99 minutes
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Writers: Melchior Lengyel, Edwin Justus Mayer, Ernst Lubitsch
Photography: Rudolph Mate
Music: Werner R. Heymann
Editor: Dorothy Spencer
Cast: Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Robert Stack, Stanley Ridges, Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Sig Ruman, Tom Dugan, Charles Halton

I still haven't seen all of director and cowriter Ernst Lubitsch's best pictures, and I think at this point I might prefer The Shop Around the Corner for pure artistry (also known as "the Lubitsch touch"). But To Be or Not to Be, presently considered his greatest, is a strange beast that really should not be missed. A Hollywood comedy about Nazi-occupied Warsaw in 1939 and the early '40s, what is perhaps most amazing about it is that it was made shortly after the invasion and while the death camps were starting to happen. The actual invasion of Warsaw in September 1939 is shown, complete with devastation. A calendar page in the last third of the movie shows a date of December 16, 1941—nine days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and nine days after Germany's decision to move forward with the "Final Solution." It has to be doubtful that the filmmakers knew about either while they were working on the movie.

That's right, I said comedy—that's what Jack Benny and Carole Lombard in particular are doing here. It's the darkest days of World War II in Poland but To Be or Not to Be is also lighthearted, urbane, musical, and funny. What's less surprising, of course, is that no one knew what to make of this movie in 1942. It was variously considered in poor taste, a downer when morale needed to be kept up, and even maybe unpatriotic. Perhaps most shocking for audiences at the time was the treatment of German Nazis as mostly harmless if obviously dangerous buffoons. It's much more like Hogan's Heroes than Come and See (or even Stalag 17)—in fact, it's quite likely that the set piece of a frustrated Colonel Klink bellowing "Schultz!" finds its direct origins here.

So the extremes are bewildering enough to produce cases of cognitive dissonance. There is a genteel and sophisticated comedy and there is a harrowing spy story both going on at once—and both done effectively. The war scenes are relatively sanitized, but all of our heroes are Polish and some are Jewish and the wartime horrors are plain even if somewhat soft-focused. The tale is told by Nazi edicts posted on walls, by the alarmingly deteriorating city exteriors, and by conversational asides. "I wonder if you really know what Nazism stands for?" the German spy Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) oozes to Maria Tura (Carole Lombard) at one point. He is attempting to seduce her—or, really, manipulate and bully her—into revealing information and/or having sex with him. "I have a slight idea," Maria says in a way that somehow says everything we need to know about her fear and her situation in that moment.

Perhaps because I looked at Woody Allen's Love and Death earlier this year, it was often on my mind as I watched To Be or Not to Be again recently. That's partly a matter of the wonderful chemistry between Jack Benny as Joseph Tura ("that great, great Polish actor") and Lombard as his wife Maria. But it goes even further. Some of the jokes have exactly the same beats. Allen might have been paying his respects. Where Napoleon is wooing Diane Keaton, for example, who keeps responding with non sequiturs, here we see Siletsky murmur lustily, "Shall we drink to a blitzkrieg?" and Maria respond, "I prefer a slow encirclement."

Lubitsch, who died in 1947 when he was 55, was one of those directors like Cecil B. DeMille, Alfred Hitchcock, or indeed Woody Allen whose name could help sell a picture. A German national (actually a Russian national who took German citizenship), Lubitsch had vacated the Vaterland by the early '20s for his long and fabulous Hollywood career, so he saw nearly all of the deadliest political developments from a safe distance. His specialty, the famous Lubitsch touch, was a matter of sophisticated upper-class comedies and even more sophisticated filmmaking.

Whatever his reasons were for making this picture at that time, it bears all his usual hallmarks. The high-flying spy story is an intricate puzzle box that fits together perfectly. The Turas, for their part, are a husband-and-wife power in Warsaw's theater world. They are apolitical hedonists but sympathetic to the resistance after 1939. At the time of this movie, Maria is beginning an affair with a Polish air force officer, Lieutenant Stanislav Sobinski (an impossibly young Robert Stack)—not her first affair, it's implied, though she also genuinely seems to love Joseph. Sobinski sits in the theater watching the Hamlet production. He knows that, when Joseph comes to the stage to give the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, that's when he can visit Maria in her dressing room. Of course seeing Sobinski get up and leave the theater at that point drives the vain Joseph batty. It's not so much anything about his wife, but he prefers his audiences riveted.

Lubitsch makes his point that Nazis  are evil cretins—I believe somehow it was the sharpness, the loathing, of his rebuke that was considered in poor taste, or it might have been his putting Jews so blatantly on screen—but he finds this perfectly elegant way to do it. Our heroes, a theater troupe, know what the German Nazis are about and they know what concentration camps are. They are fighting back. But they are also not losing their own humanity. They refuse to become the thing they hate, which I take as the point of the comedy. Jack Benny is as good as ever—I'm not sure how I keep forgetting how funny he always is—and this would turn out to be Carole Lombard's last film, as she perished in an airplane crash, age 33, before To Be or Not to Be was released.

As a Nazi hater myself I tend to prefer the caustic blasts of unrelenting hatred, because that's what Nazis after all deserve (Frontiere[s], for example). But no one can deny that To Be or Not to Be is unique, special, and weird.

1 comment:

  1. "obviously dangerous buffoons" has a chillingly familiar ring to it these days. The Lubitsch Touch sounds like hokum and probably mostly was but he was so damn charmingly clever ab it.