TO BE OR NOT TO BE (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)

One of the funniest films ever, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be begins in Poland in August 1939 just prior to Germany’s invasion. What does everyone see that accounts for such interest and commotion? There, in front of a Jewish delicatessen: Adolf Hitler. The narrator reminds us: “[Hitler] is a vegetarian. But he doesn’t always stick to his diet. Sometimes he swallows whole countries.” Is Poland next? The narrator cues a flashback to explain Hitler’s extraordinary presence, unattended, on a Warsaw street. It turns out that Hitler isn’t Hitler but a stage actor rehearsing the part, who has left the theater and taken to the streets to test out the believability of his appearance and performance. This introduces the plot device of impersonation, for the acting troupe to which this faux-Hitler belongs will be impressed into an actual performance on the stage of reality that involves the troupe’s lead actor, Joseph Tura (Jack Benny, brilliantly funny), who risks his life by pretending to be a Nazi official, with the object in mind of intercepting information concerning the Polish underground.
     Tura, a vain ham, will have to restrain himself to make a convincing Nazi. He is playing Hamlet now, and an audience member gets up and leaves each performance when Tura begins the “To be or not to be . . .” soliloquy. Lieutenant Stanislav Sobinski, a pilot, takes this cue to visit backstage Tura’s wife, Maria (Carole Lombard, in her final performance), with whom he is smitten, each time enraging Tura, whose Shakespeare, Tura believes, is too good to be walked out on. Germany has invaded Poland, but all Tura can complain about is Sobinski.
     Hitler seemed to be winning the war; but Lubitsch sets out to demystify him.


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