Comedy can be serious business, particularly when it is making light of dark subjects. When Mel Brooks made The Producers in 1967, two decades after World War II, he met resistance from people who didn't think Hitler and his Nazis should be the subject of satire. Brooks saw it a different way: he was depowering the evildoers by making them the object of ridicule. They rule by terror, but it's hard to be terrorized when you're laughing.
Of course, Brooks was not the first one to have this idea. Ernst Lubitsch wanted to achieve a similar outcome with his 1942 motion picture To Be or Not to Be. Made while the war was at its height, To Be or Not to Be was seen by some of lacking in taste. "Too soon" as the sensitive and humorless often cry. Lubitsch wanted to vilify the Fuhrer by undermining his villainy. You can't beat us because we refuse to be beaten. (Years later, Mel Brooks would close the circle by starring in a remake of To Be or Not to Be.)
Jack Benny and Carole Lombard star in To Be or Not to Be as Joseph and Maria Tura, Poland's top stage actors. At the start of the film, they are set to open a new play dramatizing life within the Gestapo. Political pressures and Germany's invasion of Poland put the kibosh on the show. Instead, the troupe carries on with their production of Hamlet.
The title, To Be or Not to Be, is, of course, a reference to Hamlet's best-known soliloquy. It's significant to the story because Maria has deemed the start of the speech as a cue to an admirer to visit her backstage. The smitten fan is a pilot named Sobinski (played by a young Robert Stack). It also poses the existential question that ultimately leads the theatre company into helping out the Resistance: to be or not to be a hero, to be or not a passive victim. The opportunity comes when Sobinski returns to Poland from combat, hoping to stop a Nazi spy (Stanley Ridges) carrying sensitive information. When Sobinski is outfoxed by his quarry and Maria inadvertently put in a sensitive situation, her husband and their co-workers try to help out. First they pose as Gestapo officials in hopes of intercepting the intel, and then Joseph poses as the actual spy so he can use the connection to get everyone out of the country. Unsurprisingly, each ruse is subject to unforeseen complications, and before they know it, they are in so deep, one of the actors even ends up pretending to be Hitler himself.
Lubitsch's script, which he co-wrote with Edwin Justus Mayer (The Buccaneer), smartly valued story over shtick, and so the tightly plotted narrative allows for as much drama and suspense as it does jokes; indeed, the trick of To Be or Not to Be is how Lubitsch takes his very straightforward scenarios and finds the humor within them, injecting each moment with wit and letting character flaws disrupt everyone's efforts. The Nazis consistently trip themselves up by being more concerned with appearance and perception than anything else, and Joseph gets himself and his friends in further trouble due to jealousy. Comedy grows out of selfish behavior and a distorted sense of self-awareness.
Jack Benny is incredible as Joseph. He is at his most droll here, and rather than fall back on his famous persona, he puts his trust in the material. There's no need to spice up the lines, the writing is perfect as is. Carole Lombard is also very funny, as well as beguiling. She often provides the emotional pull in the film, either by being in danger herself or by being the first to realize how wrong something may be going. Also of note are Felix Bressart and Tom Dugan as the theatrical troupe's regular character actors/support team. Like many a Shakespearean side duo, they serve as added comic relief, their commentary on the happenings providing insight and laughs in equal measure. Dugan is the one who disguises himself as Hitler, but it's Bressart's Greenberg who makes the ultimate sacrifice--and thus gets the starring role he always hoped for.
While there are plenty of laughs, Lubitsch never loses sight of the tragedy going on all around these characters. A montage of post-invasion destruction reminds us of who the German army's major targets were, and the lingering threat, as well as the SS's callow participation in it, means the potential consequence is never dulled. Lubitsch's gamble pays off: as audiences, we are invested precisely because we are enjoying ourselves. These merry men and woman make us laugh, and so we care about what happens to them. We like them, and we want to keep on liking them, and by logical extension, we hate anyone that would make the laughter stop.
read the full review at DVD Talk. Images here were taken from an earlier standard-definition DVD and were not taken from the Blu-Ray under review.