To Be or Not to Be
There’s a lot that’s incredible about the films of Ernst Lubitsch. There’s the casual depiction of unbridled sexuality, somehow shining through even as the dialogues and plotlines were censored by the Production Code of the ’30s and ’40s. There’s the each-gag-builds-on-top-of-the-last, symmetrically-structured brilliance of his screenplays. There’s the pathos, building quietly under the surface of every scene, and inevitably bubbling up at the perfect of climax.
Lubitsch was a master. Talking about sex and romance in ’30s Hollywood was an unexplainably challenging task that he performed with excellence every time out. In "To Be or Not to Be," he tackles perhaps the biggest challenge any filmmaker has ever faced. He displayed all the aforementioned talents, and he did it while making a farcical comedy about the Nazi threat -- in 1942.
Jack Benny and the immortally entrancing Carole Lombard star as two actors in war-torn Poland, dismayed that their own stage-set Nazi farce has been cancelled on account of the looming real-world threat. Lubitsch turns the gears in every reel -- the picture opens as a backstage screwball comedy, shifts into legitimate tragedy, and eventually finds itself as an exciting caper, with the leads and their supporting cast using their acting tropes to help topple the Nazi threat.
Criterion has packed this disc full of extras, most notably a three-reel silent short comedy directed by Lubitsch, in his native Germany, in 1916 (it’s a fair bit more innocent than his usual work, but his observational visual style seems fully formed already). You also get an audio commentary with historian David Kalat, an unfortunately shallow documentary look at Lubitsch’s works ("Lubitsch le patron," which draws parallels between his filmmaking and his father’s work as a tailor), and two episodes of a radio-drama series. One is an adaptation of "To Be" featuring the voice of William Powell, and another, entitled "Variety," features the voices of Lubitsch’s stars Benny and Lombard along with Lubitsch himself. Finally, you get a reproduction of an essay Lubitsch scribed to the New York Times in ’42, defending his use of satire and farce as it regards to the Nazi threat.
Yet Criterion’s greatest service is getting this, perhaps the greatest film of one of the greatest comedic filmmaker in the history of the form, back out into the cultural conversation. Screwball comedies thrive on lunacy -- but the ambitious aims at the heart of "To Be or Not to Be" legitimately feel like the result of an artistic lunatic going for broke.
"To Be or Not to Be"