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71 To Be or Not to Be 
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Post Re: 71 To Be or Not to Be
Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 comedy stands as one of the definitive arguments for Comedy As Art. Some folks consider comedic films inherently inferior to more serious, heavy genres. The film, concerning a theater troupe "fighting" Nazis, is a look at why comedy is important (similar in spirit to Sullivan's Travels) and how art can inspire. It’s impossible not to notice how this film influenced Truffaut's The Last Metro and Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. The similarities are, at times, striking. In addition to all of the film’s gravitas, it has the added bonus of being absolutely hilarious thanks to quite a few excellent performances and perfect direction. Make no mistake, the film is completely a comedy. It weaves its intentions into the mind through subtlety in writing and metaphor.

The film opens brilliantly with "Hitler" walking the streets of Warsaw in 1939 (before the German invasion). A few moments later we're informed that this version of Hitler is really a local actor, Bronski, who is told he doesn't resemble the Fuhrer while rehearsing an upcoming role playing the dictator. Bronski decides to take to the streets to prove the opposite. In a stroke of comedic and metaphorical genius, while citizens are staring in awe, a young girl approaches Bronski asking for his (not Hitler's) autograph. The opening scene sets the stage for the rest of the film, where Lubitsch will continually blur the lines between art and reality. In this instance, the art (the actor) has come into real life (the Warsaw streets). Later, Lubitsch will construct a similar scene where a real life spy is killed on stage. The onlookers see the death as the curtain goes up. It's the reverse of the opening scene and completes the comment on how both art and life draw from one another.

One of the joys of watching this film is how fun, silly, and pointed the plotting is. A plot recap would ruin a lot of the fun, but it goes from screwball comedy to spy film (albeit a screwball spy film) between the first and second acts, to a mixture of both for the final act. It’s consistently funny, and a hell of a lot of fun. It moves with energy and at a pace that’s uncommon in films today. The final act will remind many of IB, and I’d be shocked if Tarantino didn’t use this film as a major point of influence when writing his movie.

The movie aims to tell the story of how an acting troupe “fights” the Nazis. The film certainly has its moments where it condemns the Germans, but there’s so much more going on than just that. What’s more important than simply fighting the Nazis is how they fight the Nazis. Lubitsch’s intentional overlapping of art and real life is the starting point for what this film is trying to do. This overlap allows the movie to explore some interesting subtextual concepts, while remaining light and funny on the surface. Mainly, the film aims to point out how victims of injustice can fight back without necessarily bearing arms. By “fighting back” through their art (acting in their case), the movie’s claim is clear – art can be as powerful as a gun.

Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, from which the film gets its title, opens as such (it isn’t a coincidence these are the only words from the speech we hear in the film...repeatedly):

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous fortune;
Or to take Armes against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them

That opening portion of the monologue is essentially the movie’s underlying theme. Should one stand up to an oppressive force and risk death or do you suffer and stay alive? The film obviously rests on the “act” side of things.

Now, all of this is very smart stuff and done very well and makes for an excellent movie. However, the reason I’m thrusting this into the upper pantheon of greatest American films ever, is how these ideas are combined with comedy. This may not even be intentional on the part of the filmmakers, although I suspect it is, but setting a film in war torn Poland, explicitly referencing Hamlet, and dealing with themes like the power of art and the ability to do good through whatever means available should be the stuff of heavy period piece drama. Instead, Lubitsch makes another film altogether that’s just a silly, screwball romp through Poland with those silly, caricaturized Germans wreaking some insignificant havoc. The narrative keeps the stakes relatively low, and by doing that, they become incredibly high. Comedy As Art has never been done better.

The movie is currently available on Netflix streaming. I hope some of you check it out.


Thu Feb 03, 2011 5:36 pm
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Post Re: 71 To Be or Not to Be
nice post. big fan of carole lombard in this(& most of what I've seen of her)


Thu Feb 03, 2011 9:07 pm
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Post Re: 71 To Be or Not to Be
Thanks and agreed. She's terrific in this. Apparently, this was her final role, as she was killed in a plane crash prior to the film's release (she was only 33). The movie is worth watching for her and Jack Benny alone. Two wonderful comedic performances.

The comedy is what I love about the movie. Literally everything is played for comedic effect. What the film is trying to do can be easily overlooked or ignored and you'll still have a really good, enjoyable, charming film.


Fri Feb 04, 2011 10:01 am
Post Re: 71 To Be or Not to Be
PeachyPete wrote:
Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 comedy stands as one of the definitive arguments for Comedy As Art. Some folks consider comedic films inherently inferior to more serious, heavy genres. The film, concerning a theater troupe "fighting" Nazis, is a look at why comedy is important (similar in spirit to Sullivan's Travels) and how art can inspire. It’s impossible not to notice how this film influenced Truffaut's The Last Metro and Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. The similarities are, at times, striking. In addition to all of the film’s gravitas, it has the added bonus of being absolutely hilarious thanks to quite a few excellent performances and perfect direction. Make no mistake, the film is completely a comedy. It weaves its intentions into the mind through subtlety in writing and metaphor.


Great stuff. I was very interested in the picture based on the brief thoughts you previously shared but this makes me want to see it even more. I'm especially excited about the link to Tarantino. I know it's probably nothing overt but you've provided yet another incentive. Doesn't hurt that the picture is supposedly very funny.


Sat Feb 05, 2011 2:46 pm
Post Re: 71 To Be or Not to Be
Great write-up, Petesicle. I was surprised to learn that this film was remade starring Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086450/
Ebert gave the remake a good review: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbc ... 60302/1023

Need to see some Lubitsch, need to see some Lubitsch...

Ebert points out that, when the original was made, Hitler was still in power... this moves up to the Very Soon list.


Sun Feb 06, 2011 2:46 am
Post Re: 71 To Be or Not to Be
Thanks guys.

Ed - The similarties to Tarantino might not be overt, but you would have noticed them without me saying anything.

Mark - I had seen zero Lubitsch before last week (or maybe the week before), but now he's moving up my personal favorites list. His movies are a lot of fun. It helps that they're witty and clever too. It takes a hell of a lot of balls to thumb your nose at hitler while he's still in power, too. That doesn't necesssarily make this a good movie, but it gets credit for having guts at a time when a lot of people didn't.


Mon Feb 07, 2011 10:50 am
Post Re: 71 To Be or Not to Be
Great movie, but I can't say I'm a huge Lubitsch fan. Undeniably both brilliant and antiquated. He brought art to comedy though, in the same way Hitchcock brought it to suspense, Welles and Wilder to noir, Ford and Mann to the western. Great topic for genre studies.


Wed Apr 06, 2011 9:51 pm
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Post Re: 71 To Be or Not to Be
Well, I've gotten to the part of the top 1000 films where I have no expectations going into viewings. Before To Be or Not To Be, I hadn't seen anything by Lubitsch. I didn't even know it was a comedy until it started making me laugh.

This is the epitome of comedy and satire in film. It starts with a plot that would be interesting without the jokes and it builds into something great. I kept thinking about how ahead of its time it is. I also can't understand how they were allowed to release a satire about Nazis in 1942.

3.5/4


Sun Apr 22, 2012 5:02 pm
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