August 25, 2007

To Be or Not to Be (Lubitsch; 1942)

I’m surprised it took me this long to watch To Be or Not to Be, to be honest. I’ve always been fascinated by Lombard, and my love of Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise meant that further investigation into his oeuvre was a necessity. Anyway, I watched it, I loved it, quelle surprise!

Of course, To Be or Not to Be is/was understandably controversial for lampooning the Nazis. But, this was not an issue for me? It’s the rigid structure and formality of the Nazis that Lubitsch ridicules (e.g. “Heil Hitler!”, “Heil Hitler!”, “Heil Hitler!” etc.), and I don’t believe that he loses sight of the atrocities that they committed. If I recall correctly, the first time we see Col. Ehrhardt he’s signing death warrants? Moreover, the fact that these are Nazis is something that inherently creates tension with the benefit of hindsight anyway, and this affects many of the film’s scenes (“to be or not to be” can be read on an existential level too, no?) Plus, the more risqué jokes act to underline the extent of their cruelty: “We do the concentrating, and they do the camping.” Lubitsch dares to tread a fine line here, which we should applaud him for, but not as much as we should for his success in getting away with it.

That success is down to the film itself being a pure delight from beginning to end. Lubitsch’s trademark charm gradually gives way to greater and more hilarious farce with every passing minute, and I really love the way in which the actors manage to save the Resistance through what is ultimately the use of art – it’s a theme that I find irresistible, and one that I think might even be slightly self-referential? Perhaps Lubitsch hoped this comedy was a means by which he could raise awareness. Regardless, art’s ability to save the day is something that makes for joyous viewing imo – and the same goes for the script’s sly little comments on the vanity of actors (particularly through the character of Joseph Tura.)

As for the actors themselves – what a delicious way to pop my Lombard-cherry, so to speak. She was utterly charming here, and I completely see the fuss and fully intend to check out more of her work. Still, as radiant as she was it’s Jack Benny who impressed me the most – uproarious in all his various guises (Joseph Tura, Hamlet, Col. Ehrhardt, Prof. Siletsky etc.) And the supporting cast were terrific too, most notably Sig Ruman as the actual Col. Ehrhardt. An appropriately brilliant ensemble, considering the theatrical troupe at the film’s core.

If it wasn’t for the clunky montages during the first half of the film, I’d call this flawless. As it stands, it suits me just fine.

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