To Be or Not to Be Screen 11 articles

To Be or Not to Be

1942

To Be or Not to Be Poster
  • The New Republic: Manny Farber
    March 23, 1942 | Farber on Film (pg. 3)

    Now that Congress is leaving Hollywood alone to make war movies, the only question is when there is going to be a good one. For war comedy, Ernst Lubitsch's "To Be or Not to Be" is mildly amusing... There is a lot of maneuvering of people and scenes to get laughs which sound more like titters. Such manipulation leads to the kind of laugh that comes from a gag-line and not from something inherently funny in the situation.

  • One of those comedies in which the setup devours half the film's running time, without being especially funny or (in this case) cuttingly satirical for its own sake. Once Jack Benny starts impersonating Nazis, it's a hoot...yet even in the back half, there's a curious remoteness, as if everyone involved was too aware of the scenario's real-world ugliness to truly cut loose.

  • Lubitsch's work often illustrates the lesson that people are only able to see what they absolutely need to see; rarely were the terms of these lessons more grave. While he may have intended merely to sing praises to the invisible hands and background players of the stage, his stern defiance of the fascist juggernaut, employing little more a string of delicately arranged theatrical conceits, could scarcely be more eloquent.

  • Almost no line of dialogue is without a barbed secondary impli¬cation; jokes comment knowingly on the jokes that preceded them, adding elements of ironic awareness too discreetly and rapidly for a single viewing to suffice. . . . Nothing is wasted here, although much is repeated. In fact, the rhythm is built through the repetition of elements, the same scenes replayed with different actors, the same lines spoken again in different contexts.

  • What's remarkable is the combination of sex and politics. One of the ongoing jokes of the movie is the way that political reflexes pop up at singularly inappropriate moments. Yet also, audaciously, Lubitsch calls attention to what is, in fact, going on in Europe at the time, even before the United States had entered the war. Filming began, after all, in November 1941, the month before Pearl Harbor Day.

  • To Be or Not to Be’s intricate screenplay, cowritten by Edwin Justus Mayer and an uncredited Lubitsch, is densely filled with deceit, disguises, and double entendres... Supple yet sober screwball, Lubitsch’s film can still astound with its darkly comic dialogue.

  • Ultimately, its subject is illegitimacy--artistic, sexual, and political. The treatment of actors and lovers is just as nuanced as its politics, and essentially in parallel.

  • One of the many pleasures of To Be or Not to Be is the way it sets its characters into desperate, seemingly intractable situations before contriving to let them escape by dint of grace, humour and wit. The elegance of the solutions is only heightened by the danger of the situations.

  • Now, with the benefit of time's remedial passing and decades worth of hindsight, Ernst Lubitsch's classic stands as an entertaining, surprisingly audacious, and powerfully poignant comic gem. One of the great filmmaker's final features (he would pass away just five years later), it is today most shocking not so much for the comedy itself, but rather the abrupt yet effortless shifts in tone, from screwball hysterics to genuinely austere observations.

  • No film about Hitler and the war was as direct in its approach to the subject at the time as To Be or Not To Be. Nor was any film about Hitler and the war as funny. Part of this is the genius of its director, Ernst Lubitsch, who simply couldn’t be prevented from making things funny. Was the popular sentiment against Nazism ever furnished with a more compelling punchline than “heil myself!”, which the Führer says flatly after a battery of salutations come his way?

  • Lubitsch’s masterful wartime satire has had many imitators, including Mel Brooks’s 1983 remake and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but none matches the original’s audacity and effortless blend of comedy and drama.

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