That Is the Question

Ernst Lubitsch, To Be or Not to Be, 1942, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 99 minutes. Maria Tura (Carole Lombard).

THE NIMBLEST COMEDY about Nazis ever made, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) brazenly opens with Hitler himself, window-shopping in Warsaw in August 1939, on the eve of Germany’s invasion of Poland, the assault that marked the beginning of World War II. It’s not the real führer, of course, but an actor dressed as him—though not just in Lubitsch’s movie but in a play within the film, a conceit viewers don’t realize until this Hitler deadpans, after he’s been ecstatically saluted, “Heil myself.”

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; this fizzy production takes quite seriously the dictator who “devour[s] whole countries” while at the same time diminishing the German leader as “the man with the little mustache.” Those who fight to vanquish Hitler’s forces are members of a Polish theatrical troupe led by the husband-and-wife team of Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) and Maria Tura (Carole Lombard), both equally solipsistic and patriotic. How these stage stars—a Slavic Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne—and their company aid the Polish resistance movement is too elaborate and ingenious to summarize here. But crucially, this noble mission is set in motion by Maria’s and Joseph’s foibles: her vanity, which is further stoked by the dressing-room attentions of an infatuated bomber pilot (Robert Stack), and her spouse’s all-consuming jealousy.

Supple yet sober screwball, Lubitsch’s film can still astound with its darkly comic dialogue. “So they call me ‘Concentration Camp’ Ehrhardt, eh?” Joseph, incognito as a Gestapo colonel, chuckles to the Nazi spy who has just tried to flatter his superior by relaying the nickname bestowed on him by his SS admirers in London. (This is twenty-six years before the infamous “Springtime for Hitler” number in The Producers; significantly, Mel Brooks, the writer-director of that 1968 farce, and his wife Anne Bancroft would star in a 1983 remake of To Be or Not to Be.) Few critics, however, appreciated the humor in Lubitsch’s film, released in this country three months after the US entered the war; the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther sniffed, “To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case.”

To Be or Not to Be’s original reception may have also been darkened by a tragic loss among the cast: Lombard, one of the era’s most beloved actresses, died, at age thirty-three, in a plane crash while flying back from a war-bond rally less than two months before the movie’s premiere. In her only collaboration with Lubitsch, Lombard tones down considerably the exhilarating chaos she brought to the screwball classics Twentieth Century (1934) and My Man Godfrey (1936). As a soignée diva, she is the luminous center of To Be or Not to Be, yet her flawless timing and delivery here still recall the incomparable loopiness dominant earlier in her career. No other performer could make the simplest term of farewell—Bye!—sound so fey, so alluring, elevating a lone syllable to a mini symphony.

To Be or Not to Be is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.