To Be or Not to Be (1942). 99 minutes. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Starring Carole Lombard (as Maria Tura), Jack Benny (as Joseph Tura), Robert Stack (as Lt. Stanislav Sobinski), Felix Bressart (as Greenberg), Lionel Atwill (as Rawich), Stanley Ridges (as Professor Alexander Siletsky), Sig Ruman (as Col. Erhardt), Tom Dugan (as Bronski), Charles Halton (as Dubosh), and Henry Victor (as Capt. Schultz).
In To Be or Not to Be, Jack Benny plays Joseph Tura, a Polish actor in Nazi-occupied Warsaw who thinks highly of himself even though few others do. At one point, disguised as a Gestapo agent to further the Polish cause, he asks the German Col. Erhardt if he has heard of this actor Joseph Tura, apparently fishing for compliments even while conducting dangerous espionage. Col. Erhardt, to Tura’s surprise, has heard of the actor. “Oh yes,”the Nazi says, “I saw him in Hamlet once. What he did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland.”
This joke comes at the end of a long line of scenes in which Tura vainly solicits praise for his performances even in the most dangerous situations and is constantly rebuffed by both Poles and Nazis who are oblivious to his existence; it is the perfect punchline to Tura’s narcissistic quest for compliments. That what seems at first to be positive recognition quickly turns into the worst sort of put down is integral to the joke’s success. But perhaps we can see how in 1942, the year in which To Be or Not to Be was released, that joke might not have gone over well. It does, after all, compare the trivialities of an actor’s performance history with the rape and degradation of an entire country by some of the most evil people to have walked the earth. And it does that in a time when that rape and degradation were still ongoing. On top of that, of course, the comparison is meant to be funny. It is probably not surprising that for many critics and the general public, the movie’s audacious sense of humor was just too much. To Be or Not to Be was not a success in the theater upon its initial release.
But this movie is a spectacular comedy, and perhaps given our distance from World War Two, we can appreciate its achievements more easily today. It begins at a theater in Warsaw just before the onset of the war, where Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) and his wife Maria (Carole Lombard) are regular performers. They are preparing to star in a satire about the Germans, entitled Gestapo, but on the night of its debut, the director, citing concerns about how Gestapo will be received, calls for the theater to stage yet another performance of Hamlet instead, with Joseph Tura as Hamlet. During Tura’s rendition of the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Tura notices a young man in the front of the house rise and leave; it is the young air force pilot Lt. Sobinski, who has made it a practice to come backstage during this speech for a tryst with Maria Tura. That evening the Germans invade Warsaw and shut down the theater. Sobinski begins to fly in support of the allies and comes to suspect that an RAF contact in the Polish resistance, Professor Siletsky, is a secret Gestapo agent. When Siletsky arrives in Poland from England bearing papers that will incriminate the leaders of the resistance, Sobinski parachutes into Poland to thwart him, enlisting the help of the Turas. Through the use of the cancelled Gestapo play’s props and costumes, the members of the acting company turn their lives into the performance they were denied on stage. By posing as Gestapo agents, they prevent Siletsky from delivering the papers to the Germans, undermine the Nazis’ rule, and eventually smuggle themselves into allied territory.
Part of the movie’s humor stems from its depiction of the actors and their self-obsession. To Be or Not to Be is quick to show us the self-centered and mercurial nature of the members of the acting company, which consists largely of hams and bit-part players who dream of making it big. Of course, Joseph Tura is, as I have already mentioned, obsessed with his reputation; he is also an indulgent performer on the stage. But the star players are not the only ones who are shown in this light. One of the movie’s most effective jokes occurs when two minor actors in the Hamlet production complain about always standing in the background with their spears, never acting the roles of their dreams. No one appreciates their tremendous potential, they lament. Then in the days following the invasion, we see them standing with snow shovels in the winter streets, wondering when they will ever be able to stand on stage with spears again. This exchange is a correction of their former pettiness and vanity, but it also shows that their fickleness and tendency to complain remain constant. We know that if the worst thing to befall them since the invasion is outdoor cleanup, they are actually faring all right.
Nevertheless, the movie demonstrates how even those in the stage profession, who in this case we are encouraged to think may be unlikely to consider the needs of society or their fellow man, can be instrumental in the fight against injustice. Although the movie does show brave conduct on the part of allied airmen like Sobinski, the characters whom we see behaving heroically are almost exclusively the actors from the Warsaw theater. In transforming the actors through their professional skills into the story’s heroes, To Be or Not to Be shows us that heroics are possible even in people whom we might not obviously look to for bravery and selflessness. The beautiful Maria Tura, for example, so preoccupied with her hair and lipstick in her dressing room scenes, is also willing to look her sultry best if it means she can extract information from Professor Siletsky for the Polish cause. She is even willing to kill him for the sake of the resistance and takes steps to do so when she is locked in his apartment, revealing that in spite of her mild narcissism she feels a sense of duty to her country and is also rather brave. In this sense, the plot is a universal statement about the ability of people living under tyranny to help further the cause of liberty in spite of their stations and personalities. And yet To Be or Not to Be, in spite of its generally applicable point of view, does not bear the mark of propaganda and does not take itself too seriously. Indeed, it is full of extreme silliness involving romantic subterfuge, actors misplacing facial hair at key moments, overzealous performances, nervous Nazis, a Hitler impersonator, and some fast thinking with a corpse.
Still, in spite of the movie’s comic situations, there are some serious undercurrents. For example, there is a sequence when increasingly menacing posters are shown on building walls around occupied Warsaw: first announcing curfew, then announcing concentration camp sentences for resistors, and then declaring that protesters will be shot on sight. No doubt this is reflective of the very real kind of escalation tactics the Nazis used in Poland as their brutal vice grip tightened on the country they so loathed.
There is also Greenberg, played by the frequent collaborator of director Ernst Lubitsch, Felix Bressart. Greenberg is one of the bit actors I mentioned who complains about holding spears and snow shovels, but he also harbors a deep longing to play Shylock in Shakespeare’s play about Renaissance Judaism, The Merchant of Venice. Many times we hear him demonstrating his skill at reciting Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech; it is implied that Greenberg is Jewish, although that is never made explicit. When the Gestapo are hosting Hitler himself at a theatrical event in the Warsaw theater (there is a faint anticipation of the 2009 movie Inglourious Basterds here), the actors conspire to have Greenberg appear in street clothes in the lobby and recite the speech to the Gestapo as a distraction so that they can escape to the airport (he is not left behind). We get to see Greenberg as a fine actor and a brave person, outing himself not only as a Jew to a crowd of Nazis but also risking his neck for his fellow actors. The scene could have come off as too precious, but instead it is perfect. Greenberg’s recitation of Shylock’s speech points to the ethical dimension of this comedy, which is very real and rather strong in spite of the plot’s crazy hijinks.
Just as the movie is a commentary on the ability of ordinary people to participate in political upheaval, it is also a metacommentary—that is, a reflection on itself. Ironically, To Be or Not to Be, which was in its time a commercial and critical failure because of its purported bad taste, is about a failed theatrical production that is shut down even before it can debut due to concerns about its own offensiveness. In this way, the movie is a reflection on the struggle to bring provocative drama to light. Another way to put this is to say that To Be or Not to Be is a performance about performance, whether confined to the stage in the Warsaw theater or in the offices and apartments of Nazi officers.
One of the subtexts of To Be or Not to Be is that life for everyone in occupied territory is about performing, whether that means pretending to be someone they are not as part of an international espionage plot or merely going about their business in the streets. Fortunately, as political impostors, the Warsaw actors are clever and successful, capable of manufacturing dialogue and creating plotlines on the fly—but others are neither so skilled nor so lucky. Take Professor Siletsky, who is a real spy and accidentally gives himself away to Col. Sobinski when Siletsky suggests that he has not heard of Maria Tura—but what Warsaw native, Sobinski argues, could not know of the city’s most famous actress? This is an important moment when someone’s real behavior is assessed as a failed performance, and Siletsky pays the ultimate price for his slip up.
One of the reasons that the actors can be effective in their real-life performance is because they are professional pretenders, but also because, as the movie suggests over and over again, so much of what is central to Nazism is about pretending, too. I think of the bloated Col. Erhardt with his nervous claims to being the purported “king of the concentration camps” and Professor Siletsky’s slick would-be seduction of Maria Tura: both involve play-acting. The Gestapo has built its success on brutish intimidation and violence but also on posturing, posing, and lying, and the Warsaw actors, who excel at pretending, are a perfect rejoinder to the falseness of the Nazis.
Ultimately, To Be or Not to Be is a bold statement about how we must act in difficult times when political leadership is nightmarish and the order of the world seems topsy-turvy. It may seem easy to make fun of Nazis today, when the Nazi state per se is acknowledged worldwide as a universal symbol of evil and we are not in danger of retaliation or endangerment from it. It may even seem as if satirizing Nazism in the middle of World War Two was an effortless task. But To Be or Not to Be is too sophisticated to go for easy laughs, and it does not cheapen its subject. It is that rare comedy that is uproariously funny, hugely relevant, and very deep.