47 FILMS: 9. TO BE OR NOT TO BE
In our continuing series of 47 Films to see before you’re murdered in your dreams, we look at Ernst Lubitsche’s magnificent To Be or Not To Be.
WARSAW – People often say that GK Chesterton once said comedy is the art of saying something serious in a funny way, although if he did actually say it who knows, but nothing is said more funnily about something more serious than the heroic hilarity of Ernst Lubitsche’s To Be or Not To Be.
Released in 1942 to overwhelming critical disdain, the film tells the story of a group of Warsaw actors who resist the Nazis upon their invasion through their skills of imitation. A brilliant Jack Benny plays Joseph Tura, a vain thespian who attains heroism when it is thrust upon him, and Carole Lombard is his flirtatious wife Maria who uses the first line of her husband’s Hamlet speech as a cue for her lover to visit her backstage.
Darkness and danger are entwined in the comedy and some of the funniest jokes – ‘they call me concentration camp Ehrardt do they?’ – come from the darkest of places. Treating the Nazis with witty contempt should not be mistaken with not taking the Nazis seriously, as many contemporary critics complained. Indeed given its date and the fact that the fate of Europe was yet to be decided, Lubitsche’s film along with Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator stand as two comic acts of resistance to the most vicious farce the world has ever perpetrated on itself.