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To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Stage Fight — Written by lezard on 02.05.2022

Do you know Ernst Lubitsch and the Lubitsch touch ? If you don't, great pleasures and delights of cinema await you. Elegance and subtlety !
Let's start with a masterpiece : « To Be or not to Be ». But first, a bit of history.
Ernst Lubitsch, a Jewish actor in Berlin, in theatre first, became in cinema as famous as Max Linder as early as 1913 and the greatest German comic.
He started directing, mostly after the 1st world war. Mary Pickford invited him to The USA where he shot successful movies. The Lubitsch touch was beginning. He mocked the American bourgeois manners in a sophisticated way.
He became a favorite target for the nazis, both as a Jew and as a traitor working for the enemy.
« To Be or not to Be » was his answer to this hateful campaign. But, not only did he want a comedy (Chaplin had already released « The Great Dictator »), but he intended theatre to be his lethal weapon. His friends all told him it was a foolish idea, doomed to fail.
Mission impossible ? Mission accomplished !!
The scene is set in Varsaw, in a theatre. The play which is rehearsed stages Hitler and is cancelled after the entry of the German army in Poland and Varsaw. It is replaced by Hamlet. The main actress, every night, cheats on her husband (the leading rôle) with a young Polish officer, during Hamlet's monologue. The officer seeks refuge in London but is sent back to Varsaw on a special mission. He must uncover a traitor who endangers Polish resistance. He is helped by the whole theatre company.

Timing in this comedy is just a wonder, a very high precision mechanism. The film plays on a brilliant principle : what does the spectator know ?
Lubitsch, just like Hitchcock resorts to two devices : suspense and surprise, and sometimes both in the same time. We are constantly ahead or late on the plot. It is subtle, virtuosic, hilarious and powerful. He manages to hold the nazis' stupidity, cruelty, vanity and ignorance up to ridicule in a rejoicing manner.
In the very heart of the plot lies a theatrical stratagem where the characters resort to make up, costumes, dialogues, rehearsal. And they litterally have to deal with theatrical questions : do the actors know their lines, are the staging, the setting and the casting credible ?
But the stratagem plays on two, then three levels. It is prodigiously clever and funny. Lubitsch even succeeds in making Shakespeare and Hitler converse.
To watch or not to watch ? That is not the question.
Don't go, run and see « To Be or not to Be », enjoy, and then you'll want to see the other movies.

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