Lubitsch’s war-torn Warsaw woes

Alex Schmerge

“To Be Or Not To Be,” directed by Hollywood veteran Ernst Lubitsch, is a sophisticated satire set in occupied Poland in the midst of World War II. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard star as a husband-and-wife acting team (Joseph and Maria Tura) who perform with a Warsaw company. At the onset of the film, the two, along with members of their theatrical troupe, are rehearsing their new play, “Gestapo,” when authorities intervene and cancel it.

The group instead performs their old standby, “Hamlet,” with Joseph Tura in the title role. After being forced to abandon this production, the theatre group employs roleplaying, fantasizing, con games and various disguises to help the Polish Resistance outwit the Gestapo. Along the way, Hamlet’s question “To be or not to be?” becomes a constant refrain.

“To Be Or Not To Be” successfully combines humor with the depiction of pain inflicted upon innocent people by the Nazis. Using comedy to articulate the absurdities of Nazi beliefs, Lubitsch shows us that humor can be just as effective as a more serious tone in raising social and political consciousness.

The film has long been recognized as an entertaining and incisive comedy. However, when it was first released in 1942, Lubitsch, who co-wrote and co-produced this film as well as directing it, was criticized by some members of the press for employing humor, including jokes about concentration camps, in his treatment of such a serious situation. In his defense, Lubitsch cited that he had included real footage of war-torn Warsaw in this picture. He also voiced his personal disgust with Germany’s actions: “What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology.”

The film’s combination of elegance and witty dialogue, along with magnificent performances by Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, makes “To Be Or Not To Be” a poignant anti-Nazi satire.

Unfortunately, this would be Lombard’s final film. The actress (a.k.a. Mrs. Clark Gable), who was known as the queen of screwball comedy, died in an airplane crash six days before the film’s premiere while on a warbonds sales tour.

“To Be Or Not To Be” will be shown on Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 3:30 and 7 p.m. and Monday at 7 p.m. in the Connelly Center Cinema. Admission is $3 for students and $4 for adults. The Monday showing only will be followed by a discussion, “Bridging the Abyss Between Laughter and Horror,” led by John O’Leary, director of the Cultural Film Series.