A Filmography Classic is Revisited with ‘To Be or Not to Be’

Photo by Hannah Maerowitz | Staff Photographer

Hannah Maerowitz

Ernst Lubitsch’s urbane comedy “To Be or Not to Be” delighted viewers at its screening at UCSB’s Pollock Theater on Thursday, Oct. 19. “To Be or Not To Be” is the second film in the Pollock Theater’s “Hollywood Berlin” series, which will run throughout this fall quarter.

The series features German-born filmmakers that made impactful films in Hollywood after being alienated by politics in their home country. Although the film received a warm reception on Thursday evening, it has not always been as popular.

When “To Be or Not to Be” was released in 1942, the lead actress, Carole Lombard, had just died in a plane crash, and the United States had recently entered World War II. Due to the timing of its release, reviews were poor; the film was deemed anti-Polish and insensitive.

Furthermore, the film pushed the limits of what was considered acceptable for the big screen, given that black comedy was not en vogue. However, the intention of the film  to be a satiric analysis of the German psyche  became more recognized after WWII ended and earned “To Be or Not to Be” a better reputation.

The movie has also been cited as an important film influence for some well-known directors, including Mel Brooks, who actually tried to remake the film, and Wes Anderson.

The film follows a troupe of actors, spearheaded by Joseph and Maria Tura (played by Jack Benny and Carole Lombard respectively) who become involved in a scheme to stop a Nazi spy from leaking intelligence regarding the Polish resistance. The troupe transfers their improvisational skills from the stage to the sticky situation, achieving both comic and actual success.

In the film, Nazis frequently respond to even the most minute attacks on their support for the Reich by hyperbolically proclaiming “Heil Hitler” and attempting to diffuse responsibility off of themselves. The troupe of Polish actors are able to use the insecurity of the Nazis to humorously manipulate them.

“To Be or Not To Be” uses references to Shakespeare throughout the film to create both humor and meaning. The title of the film simultaneously references the uncertain outcome of World War II and the troupe of actors’ production of “Hamlet,” which plays a notable role in developing the plot in the first half of the film. Throughout the film, there are also repeated and timely deliverances of the “Hath not a jew eyes?” speech from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”

Colonel “Concentration Camp” Ehrhardt also delivers a hard-hitting but comedic reference to Shakespeare when asked what he thinks about the actor Joseph Tura, saying that, “He does to Shakespeare what we are now doing to Poland.” This line, which mocks Tura’s performance while also referencing the suffering of WWII is an example of the boundary-pushing comedy that’s consistent throughout the film.

After the screening, there was a Q&A session featuring Emily Caraman, a professor of Film & Media Studies at Chapman University, moderated by the director of the Casey-Wolfe Center, Patrice Petro. The Q&A gave viewers more background on the making and meaning of the film.

Caraman discussed Carole Lombard’s performance as Maria Tura, saying that she was “built for the role” and citing Lombard’s role in “To Be or Not To Be” as one of the few instances where she deviated from more traditional Hollywood films.

Together, the screening and Q&A session gave UCSB students and Isla Vista community members insider knowledge about both American and German culture during the 1930s and 1940s.

More installations from the Hollywood Berlin series will occur on Oct. 26, Nov. 2, and Nov. 19. The next screening will be of “The Last Laugh” from 7:00 to 9:45 p.m.