Sunday, 1 September 2013

TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) - Review By Greg Klymkiw - "So, they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt?" Lubitsch's great black, screwball, romantic comedy gets the Criterion Collection treatment on BLU-RAY.

To Be Or Not To Be (1942) *****
Dir. Ernst Lubitsch
Starring: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart,
Lionel Atwill, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman, Tom Dugan

Review By Greg Klymkiw
An actor's worst nightmare: He is playing Hamlet before a packed opening night house. He finds his light onstage and looks soulfully into the depths of his character's spirit and launches into one of the greatest of Shakespeare's soliloquies. "To be or not to be..." he intones before catching sight of an audience member standing up in the middle of the second row then clumsily stepping over and onto the feet of those seated next to him. The show must go on, but never could any actor ever imagine being faced with the ultimate slap-in-the-face, the utter horror of an audience member walking out on: "to be or not to be." That such an indignity should occur but once in an actor's life is enough to sadly accept "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune", but when it begins to happen every night, surely any sane person would agree that "now is the winter of our discontent."

The actor in question is none other than Joseph Tura (Jack Benny), the male half of an acclaimed husband and wife thespian team in Poland just prior to Hitler's occupation. The seemingly dissatisfied patron of the arts, clutching a bouquet of flowers every evening is the young Polish Air Force officer Lt. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack) who is smitten with Joseph's beautiful wife Marie Tura (Carole Lombard) and upon her instructions, "To Be Or Not To Be" is the code for handsome Sobinski to safely go backstage to pay homage to her.

Ah, the slings and arrows... of Cupid and eventually, Hitler. If there was (or is) a comedy that touches upon Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust that blends with the kind of "what if?" scenario eventually employed by Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, but was actually made during World War II, then you need not look too hard to find it. With 1942's To Be Or Not To Be, director Ernst Lubitsch and his screenwriter Edwin Justus Mayer (journalist, noted playwright and writer of close to 50 screenplays from the silent era and beyond) crafted one of the funniest and most daring comedies of its time. That the film remains as one of the funniest and most daring comedies of ALL TIME, is no fluke.

The world was at war, anti-Semitism became the key driving force of Germany and while the role of the Allied Force always took centre stage, many brave artists risked and/or gave up their lives for the war effort. Carole Lombard, for example, never saw the finished product. Two months before the film's release in 1942, she perished in a plane crash. She was on her way to preside over a War Bonds drive. She was 33 years old.

To Be Or Not To Be is an important film in more ways than one. At its foremost, the movie is an astonishing example of everything that can make a motion picture as great and enduring a work of art as anything by virtue of every single detail being completely and utterly perfect. The film uses all the basic rules of film language developed to its stage in movie history, then proceeds to expand each and every one of those boundaries in ways that have defined and refined cinema in its lofty shadow and in homage to its quintessential place as a truly modern classic.

Take the film's opening - a stirring montage detailing the rise of Anti-Semitism in Poland in 1939. At first, it's a kind of News on the March celebration of Polish-Jewish culture and morphs into a powerful documentary-styled portrait of Nazi subjugation of Poland, and in particular, the Jewish people. The sequence essentially presents a chilling, darkly funny tale of Hitler arriving in the Jewish district of Warsaw to peruse the wares in one of the delis (utterly absurd given Hitler's vegetarianism and hatred of Jews). It then culminates in revealing how and why Hitler came to Warsaw using what is still one of the great pieces of screenwriting in movie history.

It's a brilliant and almost shocking turn that not only provides an answer to the question it poses, but leads us into the narrative's chief backdrop.

So, first and foremost - the film within its opening minutes signals that we'll be seeing an incredibly unique story and that the film will not at all shy away from the political realities in Europe the way almost every other film did during WWII. We take such politics for granted in our popular storytelling now. Lubitsch shot his film on the cusp of America entering the war effort officially and, unable to secure backing by the studios, turned to the far more daring British film industry to pick up the tab. To say the picture would have shocked audiences is an understatement. However, those who saw it, were also delighted and during subsequent decades, the film has stood the test of time and blows pretty much every movie of a similar nature right off the map. (And, there is, by the way, absolutely no need to see Mel Brooks' remake which, while not awful, is resoundingly ordinary.)

The storytelling is also quite unique in that Lubitsch gives us a film that blends several different strands of the comedy genre. The film is as much a biting satire (still on a par with Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove from many years later), as it is a madcap screwball comedy (replete with rapid-fire one-liners, pratfalls and humour lodged deeply in mistaken identity) and finally, it's a romantic comedy - a love story involving a triangle that serves to (no kidding) fight the Nazis, but also explore the differences between mere infatuation and deeply-seeded mature love and respect.

And yes, it is about the commitment of artists in wartime - a dazzling, rich and even moving portrait of how members of a theatre company must deliver their most astounding performances in their entire careers. One bad performance could lead to death for one if not all the actors and threaten the Polish underground's war effort. Ultimately, though, To Be Or Not To Be is a comedy about Nazis set against the backdrop of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw - a comedy that portrays Nazis as dangerous as they are mind-numbingly moronic.

This portrayal of Nazis certainly pre-dates Billy Wilder's Stalag 17) and frankly, it's a lot more viciously funny. The endless barking cries of "Heil Hitler!" that accompany any mere mention of Der Führer are continuously hilarious and no more so than when Der Führer himself walks into a room amidst the boot clicking and hands outstretched and in complete deadpan utters: "Heil Myself."

There isn't a single cast member who doesn't give it their all. Carole Lombard, once again proved why there were no actresses who could touch her with a ten foot pole. She's mad, sexy, passionate, sharp as a tack, funny as hell and good goddamn, the woman knew no boundaries - under Lubitsch's extraordinary direction, she displayed an unparalleled freewheeling, rip-roaring, cartwheeling, insanely, whirlingly, nutty dervish. The great Jack Benny, for whom Lubitsch conceived the role for, knocks it right out of the park as "that great, great Polish actor, Joseph Tura" a self-proclamation that gets hilariously shot down by a blustering, blundering Nazi commander who quips that what Tura "did to Shakespeare, Germany is doing to Poland." What Benny does as he infiltrates Gestapo headquarters is pure comic genius - but also, just pure great screen acting. He's acting as an actor who's acting as a Nazi.

Suffice it to say, after seeing To Be Or Not To Be, it will be impossible for you to ever get this line of dialogue out of your head. It's horrifying and audaciously hilarious as Lubitsch and Mayer milk it for all it's worth:

"So," says the Nazi commandant upon receiving a compliment from Benny as Tura in Nazi disguise, "So, they call me Concentration Cape Ehrhardt, eh?"

Concentration Camp Ehrhardt, indeed! Comedies about the Holocaust just don't get funnier than this.

And as Tura in Nazi get-up quips: "We Germans do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping."

"To Be Or Not To Be" is yet another must-own Blue-Ray from the Criterion Collection. Boasting a new, restored 2K digital film transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition, a fine new audio commentary with ace film historian David Kalat, "Pinkus’s Shoe Palace", a 1916 German silent short directed by and starring Ernst Lubitsch (a GREAT silent shiort by the way and an extremely revelatory look at a very popular series of comedies which celebrated and never tried to hide the Jewish-ness of the main hero), "Lubitsch le patron", an excellent 2010 French documentary on the director’s career which presents a thorough analysis of his work with detailed and knowledgable interviews with virtually every important French cinema egg-head, a lovely booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1942 New York Times op-ed by Lubitsch himself and one of the real treats are two - count 'em - TWO episodes of The Screen Guild Theater, a radio anthology series: "Variety" (1940), starring Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert and Lubitsch, and "To Be or Not to Be" (1942), an adaptation of the film, starring William Powell, Diana Lewis, and Sig Ruman. Another must-own title for any lover and/or student of cinema.