Passed. For being a screwball comedy, there are times that are phenomenally bleak. I wondered what people knew about concentration camps during World War II. Apparently, the public knew all about them. This movie straight up talks about them fairly clearly. There's some infidelity and death. It's a comedy, but it is also a war movie. There's nothing outright offensive, so go at it.
DIRECTOR: Ernst Lubitsch
My quest to find photos that are the correct aspect ratio has led me to this. A setting image. Everything else has weird Italian subtitles or is the wrong aspect. I apologize for how blah that image is considering how good this movie is. FilmStruck dies tomorrow. (Note: Since then, I found a better image and have replaced it.) I needed to go on a final binge to watch some of the movies that I could have enjoyed had I gotten this service earlier. (Although, nothing lights a fire under my butt faster than having to watch something before it is gone. Sorry, the last half of Big Trouble in Little China. I may never end up seeing you.)
I knew of the Mel Brooks version. I hadn't seen it, but I knew of it. I also kind of knew about the Ernst Lubitsch version. I'm a bad film teacher. For a guy who claims to love Ernst Lubitsch, how do I only kind of know about To Be or Not to Be? Regardless, we gave it a whirl. It was famous enough that I could entice my wife and my sister-in-law to watch it. (The requirements were that it was famous enough but somehow hadn't been watched.) But then we saw that Jack Benny and Carole Lombard were in it and that kind of sealed the deal. I don't know that anyone was specifically a huge fan of those two, but the criteria were covered so we tread on. I'm going to continue to bury myself because, if I can't be vulnerable here, where can I be vulnerable? (Ideally with my spouse or in a confessional. Stop talking to yourself and go on with your point.) I don't think I have much experience with Jack Benny. I know that I'm a self-proclaimed pop culture savant, but Jack Benny and I haven't really crossed paths before. I just looked down his IMDB credits and the only thing that I've experienced is his uncredited role in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. That probably doesn't count. But Jack Benny makes this movie special. I knew his reputation as a funny guy. But he takes what could be kind of an absurd war film that oddly takes itself more seriously than you'd think it would and makes it genuinely joyful. I'm not going to give all the props to Benny. After all, I went into this as a Lubitsch fan and it's his baby. But every Jack Benny scene crushes. He's really funny. He's got that balance between Groucho Marx and Woody Allen down. There's a physicality to him that is not over the top, but he just carries himself in a certain way. But the script depends on someone being able to understand timing and wit and delivery. Jack Benny has all of that and I really love it. Carole Lombard oddly fits as an excellent pair to Benny. There's something really interesting in Lombard's character that I'm not used to seeing in films from the '40s.
While far from a perfect characterization of femininity, Lombard's Maria Tura has quite a bit of agency in this one. Yeah, the movie fails the Bechdel test pretty hard. But I find the Bechdel test somewhat incomplete. (Look at me! A white male claiming to make the rules for feminism! Oh, Brave New World...) Maria Tura is a character that has agency. She is the driving character in the plot. Give the '40s a little bit of leeway. Yeah, Jack Benny gets all the glory. It's part of his character arc. But Benny goes from being a coward and selfish to a hero of the war. He never really loses his ego, but he uses his ego for good, so that's why the movie keeps showing him. But analyze this picture. Maria Tura starts the movie as kind of a sucky person. She's kind of running around with this other guy. (Why do I put "kind of"? She's cheating on her husband. I should be clear about that. But it is portrayed adorably, which kind of gets under my skin.) But the second that things get real, she's deeply involved in the movement. I think that the movie was probably tempted to have her involved to help Stanislav (that I only now realized was played by Robert Stack!). But it never really sells it that way. She sees a good that she can accomplish by using her talents through acting and that gets the story started. It also seems like Benny has no idea that Lombard is doing all of this. It's kind of great. (I need to start referring to them by character names. I apologize for this shift.) Joseph is still kind of a selfish jerk and it is Maria's sacrifice that gets both of them involved. Like Casablanca, the movie gets remarkably patriotic in the face of the Nazi threat. This is where cultural and historical context plays a large part in the watching of the movie. This movie came out during World War II. It has no idea how the war is going to turn out. But it is about the inspirational Polish people fighting against this unstoppable threat. It's not an American movie. Well, it's not a movie about Americans. The Polish people were completely decimated and subjected to horrors. They were the downtrodden. Internationally, I don't think that they had the respect that we see in this movie. I just learned about the Polish battalion of the RAF (Squad? I'm not a military guy.). But To Be or Not to Be has the Polish people as the heroes of the war.
And that leads to possibly the most important reason to watch To Be or Not to Be. For a farcical comedy, the movie hits some heavy things. And these heavy things can be found in Felix Bressart's Greenberg. We have heard the famous Shylock monologue before. I'm always a bit on edge when I hear it because Shakespeare, despite this woke soliloquy, has Shylock as the villain of the piece. But Greenberg is a Jew who continues to be overlooked in his society. Yet, it is his use of Shakespeare that reminds us how little we've progressed. The backdrop of Nazi-occupied Poland is painful. This isn't the fun war. This isn't the military that we're looking at. Please, study military strategy if that floats your boat. It's not my jam, but I do find the stories of the individuals quite moving. Greenberg is a reminder of the horrors of war and oppression in the middle of this comedy. Lubitsch doesn't just want to present one thing. Comedies are great. We should laugh and we should find humor in the darkness. But Lubitsch understands something that I probably don't think about too often. Comedy isn't meant to make us erase the dark stuff. It helps us cope. It helps us process. But it doesn't erase the darkness. By including Greenberg in this film, the darkness is given voice and we must confront it. Yeah, it might make it harder to laugh after a scene of Greenberg freezing in the cold, muttering, "Prick us, do we not bleed?" This movie is set in Poland. Lubitsch himself was a German Jew and had to deal with a wealth of conflict inside him. He's going to comment on the Holocaust, but he's going to do so in his way.
I loved this movie. I'm so glad that I found it on FilmStruck before its death. This movie is still out there. I highly recommend this one. It's pretty great. Sure, the infidelity is really bizarre to me, but the movie works so well as a whole that I'm even willing to make peace with that.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.