Actors taking on tyrants: Ernst Lubitsch’s ‘To Be or Not to Be’

To Be or Not To Be film posterA Polish acting troupe outwits the Nazis using Shakespeare codes and theatrical smarts in Ernst Lubitsch’s film To Be or Not to Be, an audacious comedy filmed while Adolph Hitler’s forces were moving across Europe in 1941, and released in February 1942, just two months after America entered World War II. Almost the definition of a joke told too soon, the movie succeeds — and is still vital, 80 years later — by finding the tonal sweet spot between fanciful comedy and grim reality, and presenting Shakespeare as the ultimate plea for humanity.

As the film begins, it’s 1939 and Joseph Tura and his wife Maria are the leading actors in a Warsaw theater company whose current production — a biting satire called Gestapo! — is canceled before it can open out of fear it will offend Hitler. “Well, wouldn’t that be too bad!” is the sarcastic response of Joseph, played in a wonderful deadpan by Jack Benny (who’s best remembered today as a comedian more than an actor). When the company is forced to resume performances of a classic from their repertory — William Shakespeare’s Hamlet — Maria (played incandescently, in her final role, by Carole Lombard) encourages the flattering attentions of a handsome young pilot in the audience, telling him to come to her dressing room during her husband’s indulgently lengthy rendition of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” monologue.

So far, it’s an amusing backstage comedy that pokes gentle fun at the egos and melodramatic histrionics of self-involved actors. But just as Maria’s lover is insisting they tell her husband about their affair, Germany invades Poland: bombing Warsaw, killing civilians, and forcing the actors to go into hiding. This is played with absolute seriousness, with what looks like actual wartime footage intercut with sets dressed with fake rubble and barbed wire. Maria’s lover escapes to England and joins a Polish squadron of the RAF, then sends a message to Maria, assuring her he’s still alive and consisting of the single phrase “to be or not to be”. When that message is intercepted by the Gestapo, Maria is brought in for questioning by an interviewer determined to understand the suspicious code-phrase’s “deeper meaning”.

To Be or Not To Be film still
Carole Lombard and Jack Benny as Maria and Joseph Tura in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 film “To Be or Not to Be.”

Those are the broad strokes, left deliberately vague to avoid too many spoilers, and what happens next is a Shakespearean amount of comedy, disguise, playacting, intrigue, farce, passion, and death, all grounded by the very real and — at the time the film was made — immediate and dangerous threat of Nazi aggression. This mixture of tones is handled with a deftness and assuredness that has come to be known as the “Lubitsch touch,” an ineffable quality that lacks an agreed-upon description.

For me, Lubitsch’s style has its origins in a Shakespearean disregard for rigid genre definitions, as he explained in a 1942 op-ed for The New York Times:

To be or not to be is still a question, at least as far as the critics are concerned in reviewing my latest picture…I had made up my mind to make a picture with no attempt to relieve anybody from anything at any time; dramatic when the situation demands it, satire and comedy whenever it is called for. One might call it a tragical farce or a farcical tragedy — I do not care and neither do the audiences.

Shakespeare mixed these tones all the time: Some of his funniest comedy occurs in his grimmest tragedies (Hamlet, Macbeth) or in satirical histories like Henry VI, Part 1 or Troilus and Cressida. As Samuel Johnson wrote in his 1765 Preface to Shakespeare, “Shakespeare’s plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind” that “[approach] nearer than either to the appearance of life.This could well be a working definition of the “Lubitsch touch.”

The Mel Brooks remake in 1983 does not have that same touch, unfortunately. Brooks scales back the Shakespeare in favor of musical numbers and plays the jokes so broadly you can see them coming up Senatorska Street (Warsaw’s closest equivalent to Broadway). While the Brooks version is far more knowing about what the Nazis were actually up to, and dramatizes compellingly the threats to Jews and homosexuals, his film ultimately works harder and less successfully to sustain the sophisticated tone Lubitsch’s original manages so elegantly.

Lubitsch’s screenplay (credited to him, Melchior Lengyel, and Edwin Justus Meyer) contains no shortage of great lines. When a Gestapo colonel disparages Tura’s acting skills, he sums it up by saying, “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland.” A spear-carrying actor named Greenberg — who is coded as Jewish, although that word is never used — tells a particularly hammy actor, “What you are, I wouldn’t eat.” When the company attempts to disguise one of its actors as Hitler himself, the stage manager is skeptical about the resemblance. “It’s not convincing,” he says. “To me, he’s just a man with a little mustache.” The makeup supervisor replies, “But so is Hitler.”

Shakespeare is woven into the film’s entire fabric. Maria’s lover is referred to as “this young Romeo”; a spy is killed, Polonius-like, behind a curtain; and Joseph dreams of one day playing Julius Caesar. Greenberg similarly dreams of playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and finally gets his chance in the most dangerous venue imaginable — a room full of Nazis. Greenberg is played by Felix Bressart, a German actor forced to flee the country after the Nazis took power in 1933, and his powerful speech flows effortlessly into Shylock’s:

What does he want from us? What does he want from Poland? Why possess us? Why? Why? Aren’t we human? Have we not eyes? Have we not hands? Organs? Senses? Dimensions? Affections? Passions? Fed with the same food? Hurt with the same weapons? Subject to the same diseases? Healed by the same means? Cooled and warmed by the same summer and winter? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? If you wrong us, do we not revenge?

Acted and filmed in Los Angeles as Nazi aggression was devastating Europe, Lubitsch turned to Shakespeare to make not only the case for humanity but also, by ending on the word “revenge,” the case for America’s involvement in the war.

To Be or Not to Be retains its comic charm today and, unfortunately — as yet another dictator is brutally invading another country without provocation — its extraordinary timeliness. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is also an actor and comedian leading his forces against an invading army — and using the exact same Shakespeare phrase as a message of strength and resolve against a foreign invasion. “The question for us now is ‘to be or not to be’,” Zelensky told the British Parliament this week. “I can give you a definitive answer: It’s definitely ‘to be’.”