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Our reviews of The Mel Brooks Collection (published May 1st, 2006), The Mel Brooks Collection (Blu-Ray) (published December 21st, 2009), and To Be Or Not To Be (published May 9th, 2005) are also available.
A comic high wire act!
They say laughter is the best medicine, but they also say that prevention is nine-tenths of the cure. Comedians often suffer for this when they make fun of dangers that are present rather than dangers approaching. One good belly laugh in that Munich beer hall might have put a young Adolf Hitler in his place, but once the Nazis were in power, the world seemed less inclined to laugh at him, no matter how ridiculous his little mustache got. Charlie Chaplin got away with it in 1940 with The Great Dictator, but by 1942, there was less propaganda value in laughing at Nazis. Ernst Lubitsch felt this wrath when his To Be or Not to Be, set in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, premiered. Audiences at the time couldn't seem to laugh at the black humor, though the years have seen the film become a classic touchstone of World War II cinema. Thanks to the folks at Criterion and To Be or Not to Be (Blu-ray), we now have a near-perfect presentation of the film and some excellent extras to help this reevaluation continue for the foreseeable future.
Facts of the Case
To Be or Not to Be opens on the eve of the German invasion of Poland, where a troupe of actors is putting on Hamlet. Actress Marie (Carol Lombard, My Man Godfrey), who is married to fellow thespian Joseph (Jack Benny, Broadway Melody of 1936), finds herself in the middle of the Polish resistance when an admirer becomes involved with espionage.
Most of the classic films that (at the time) dealt with the horrors of World War II did so via allegory. The Great Dictator is set in Tomainia. Le Corbeau takes place in a town explicitly labeled as "anywhere." Children of Paradise sets the film 100 years in the past. In stark contrast, To Be or Not to Be is set in contemporary (for the time) Warsaw, Poland. Poland, of course, is where approximately half of those Jews exterminated in the Holocaust originated from, and where some of the of the more infamous concentration camps were located (Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Belzec).
Into this terrifying milieu, Lubitsch throws a troupe of actors, initially performing Hamlet. One of the many lessons from that play is that "the play's the thing"—by playing we can find truth, shape events, and steel ourselves for coming troubles. To Be or Not to Be offers us a fantasy in the same vein—it's not a realistic depiction of the Resistance, nor of the Holocaust, nor of the privations of World War I. Instead, it's a film about humans being humans in the face of terrible difficulties. The message of many of Lubitsch's films is precisely that humans are flawed, vain, or otherwise silly creatures—and yet we can conduct ourselves with care and dignity (and love, though this is not one of his sex farces).
Despite this sometimes depressing environment—and the importance of the Resistance movement and spying in general—To Be or Not to Be is a comedy. To bring that comedy to life, Lubitsch cast the unlikely Jack Benny, who was famous on the vaudeville stage and in radio, but didn't do as well in films as someone like Groucho Marx. Here, he plays a ham with gusto, and his famous time is in full force, giving Tura both a gravity and a humanity that other comedians might have sacrificed to get a laugh. Carole Lombard is perfect as his wife. Though she is known for her screwball films, here she mocks Nazis with a gusto that translates perfectly.
Though Criterion is primarily known for those directors that bloomed during the art house period in the fifties and sixties—Kurosawa, Bergman, Godard—they seem to have a special affection for Lubitsch, with To Be or Not to Be their eighth Lubitsch release (fourth standalone, with four included in the Lubitsch Eclipse box set). It's no surprise, then, that they've lavished care on the To Be or Not to Be (Blu-ray). Things start with an immaculate new 2K transfer of the film from the original nitrate negative. The resulting 1.33:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is a marvel. Detail is amazing, from close-ups of costumes to wider shots that establish the countryside everything resolves beautifully. Grain is well-handled, not too distracting nor smoothed out into nonexistence. Contrast is good and black levels stay consistent. No compression artefacts show up to mar things. The LPCM 1.0 mono track is similarly strong. Dialogue is clean and clear, free of hiss and distortion. The film's score is well-balanced and has a surprising amount of depth.
Extras start with an excellent commentary by film historian David Kalat. He delves into much of the film's history, including production details and discussions of the reception and general atmosphere surrounding the period. We also get a 54-minute documentary from 2010 on Lubitsch's career. Spanning all of his work, the documentary provides a solid case for the director's continuing significance. Lubitsch fans will also be pleased that his short film from 1916, "Pinkus's Shoe Palace" is also included. A 45-minute comedy about a young Jewish boy (Lubitsch himself!) getting into trouble, the film helps put To Be or Not to Be into relief. Two radio shows are included, one "Variety" with Lombard, Benny, and Lubitsch, the other an adaptation of the story featuring William Powell and Diana Lewis. The usual Criterion booklet includes an insightful essay by Geoffrey O'Brien and a defense of the film Lubitsch published not long after the film premiered.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Lubitsch's particular brand of comedy isn't for everyone. There's a reason that "the Lubitsch touch" is named after him, and those looking for more screwball-style films, or films that don't take on the heady problems of World War II should look elsewhere. The film must also be forgiven for being too fantastic—no, it's not likely that Maria would be such a good spy, but that's part of Lubitsch's point. If realism is of paramount importance, then To Be or Not to Be will not be the film for you.
To Be or Not to Be is not Lubitsch's most famous film, but it perfectly showcases his ability to make humanity attractive both by pointing out its foibles and reinforcing its dignity. Criterion has done their usual excellent job providing a near-perfect audiovisual presentation and a set of informative extras.
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