A bad Polish actor is just trying to make a living when what should intrude but World War II in the form of an invasion. His wife has the habit of entertaining young Polish officers while ... See full summary »
In occupied Poland during WWII, a troupe of ham stage actors (led by Joseph Tura and his wife Maria) match wits with the Nazis. A spy has information which would be very damaging to the Polish resistance and they must prevent it's being delivered to the Germans. Written by
Ken Yousten <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Colonel Ehrhardt's adjutant is Sargeant Schultz. Sig Ruman, who plays Ehrhardt, played Sargeant Schultz in Stalag 17 (1953). See more »
When Maria types the memo to put under the pillow, she types two lines with a total of 18 keystrokes. However, the actual memo is four lines of about 80 plus keystrokes (not counting spaces). See more »
[disguised as Colonel Ehrhardt]
I can't tell you how delighted we are to have you here.
Professor Alexander Siletsky:
May I say, my dear Colonel, that it's good to breathe the air of the Gestapo again. You know, you're quite famous in London, Colonel. They call you Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.
Ha ha. Yes, yes... we do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping.
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With "To Be Or Not To Be," there was good news and bad news. The good news was that it was written and produced in 1941, before America entered the war following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 (but after the Sept. 1, 1939 invasion of Poland -- which, unlike some European countries, put up a brave fight). The bad news was it was released shortly after, in early 1942, when Americans, now facing the barrel of German weapons, did not find the Nazi menace so amusing.
The New York Times movie review by Bosley Crowther (who usually was on the mark) found the humor of questionable taste, saying there was too much Jack Benny in the role:
"But it is hard to imagine how any one can take, without batting an eye, a shattering air raid upon Warsaw right after a sequence of farce or the spectacle of Mr. Benny playing a comedy scene with a Gestapo corpse. Mr. Lubitsch had an odd sense of humorand a tangled scriptwhen he made this film."
But without Benny it would have been a different movie, and, frankly, too somber and sad to be bearable, at least today. If it had been released before Pearl Harbor, the reviewer might have found Benny perfect for the role. And if the movie had been released in 1943 or 44, it might have been viewed as a brave defiance of Nazi might, and just the thing to lift spirits and boost morale.
To watch old movies is to be faced by a quandary. Back before television resale rights or DVD revenue, it was make or break based on ticket sales, so an average director's first priority was to contemporary audiences. To appreciate an old film, it helps to understand the times of the contemporary audience, in this case, the outbreak of WWII.
But a great director like Ernst Lubitsch probably was not just thinking about "today" when he made the film; presumably, he was thinking about the audiences of tomorrow, when the war was long over, won or lost. "To Be" is also a message in a bottle to the future.
Here is what director Peter Bogdanovich had to say:
"For Lubitsch, the Nazis' most damning sin was their bad manners, and To Be or Not To Be survives not only as satire but as a glorification of man's indomitable good spirits in the face of disaster survives in a way that many more serious and high‑toned works about the war do not."
(Lubitsch's influence extends far beyond Mel Brooks, according to Bogdanovich's essay, to Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and essentially all of modern Hollywood. To understand this film is to see why.)
Today, the movie seems to have the right balance of humor and pathos, and to work on many different levels. Today, we can laugh at "Mr. Benny playing a comedy scene with a Gestapo corpse." But it works best if you understand the times, The War. What most people today know about World War II they learned from watching movies. And so they see "To Be" within the memory matrix of other movies.
What you need to do is study the history of World War II, watch some of the fine documentaries, read about it, in books or online. We have all heard about "concentration camps." In 1941 concentration camps like Auschwitz were not yet used to implement the Holocaust, but to punish German political prisoners and for victims of countries invaded by Germany, like Poland. My grandparents were not picked up by French authorities and sent to Auschwitz until 1943. It is sad that some people in Europe are so ignorant of their own history. **
From the Wikipedia article on Auschwitz:
"The inmate population grew quickly, as the camp absorbed Poland's intelligentsia and dissidents, including the Polish underground resistance. By March 1941, 10,900 were imprisoned there, most of them Poles."
If you understand history you will understand the deep sadness hidden by a smile in "To Be."
Footnote: About 25 minutes before the end, the camera shows a list from the appointment book of Col. Ehrhardt. 10:30 reads: Maria Tura. 10:45 reads: Schindler.
** I wish to extend my sympathy to any student foolish enough to take Dr. Jacques Coulardeau's classes (which I certainly hope are not in history or geography or film) at the Sorbonne, or wherever he actually teaches.
Dr. Coulardeau, in his review, asks a truly bizarre question: Why, if the Allies knew about the concentration camps, didn't they stop the "massacre"? Dr. C.: Maybe it had something to do with the concentration camps being inside Germany and occupied Poland, and Germany wasn't issuing tourist visas to American soldiers.
I would like Dr. Coulardeau to explain why French officials collaborated with the Nazis in sending French citizens, including my family, to their deaths in concentration camps? America didn't start WWII, but it was American troops, not French, that ended the Holocaust.
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