To Be or Not to Be

Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1942, 99 minutes

August, 1939. Poland is still free, but the Nazis are about to make their fateful move. Suddenly: "It's the little man with the black moustache!" Adolf Hitler is strolling calmly through Warsaw, completely alone, staring into a butcher's window. But he's a vegetarian! Naturally, he attracts some attention, and the narrator takes us into a flashback to explain how Hitler arrived alone in a Warsaw high street.

Ernst Lubitsch's black comedy details the efforts of a Polish theatrical company to help the resistance effort. All-round star of vaudeville, stage, radio, screen and television, Jack Benny, is the star with Carole Lombard as his unfaithful but heroic wife.

The real trouble starts when a Professor Siletsky arrives in Warsaw supposedly to spy on the Nazis, but in reality to help the Gestapo destroy the Resistance. The theatre group use their skills to impersonate Nazi officers, Gestapo agents, and even Hitler, yet nothing goes to plan...

On its initial release this film was a flop, deemed as bad taste since America had just gone to war. Also, 33 year old Carole Lombard was killed one month previous to the premiere, in a plane crash whilst selling U.S. war bonds, tragically cutting off her distinguished career of screwball comedies asnl light dramas. But as time has passed, the film has received much praise from film historians and has finally made a profit, if belatedly. It is, admittedly, riddled with wartime propaganda, as the Nazis are all bungling incompetents arresting each other and the RAF flyers are all high spirited heroes, but these touches add to the comic value of the piece. Note too that Lubitsch was himself a Berliner of Jewish descent and keen to show his opposition to the Nazis.

Jack Benny as Josef Tura is excellent as the ham actor delivering his one-liners with proficiency, as is comedienn Carole Lombard as Maria Tura ("What a husband doesn't know won't hurt his wife"). Sig Ruman, German in real life, puts his accent to good use as "Concentration Camp" Errhard, and Robert Stack is the airman who destroys Tura's life by walking out on his Hamlet soliloquy.

At times confusing as to who is really a Nazi and who is a dressed up resistance fighter, the plot is one of mix-ups and pretence which was Lubitsch's special touch. It was remade in 1983 with Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft

Review by Martin Hunt
Taken from EUFS Programme 1992-93