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To Be or Not To Be

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
With Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack.
US, 1942, 35mm, black & white, 99 min.
Print source: Westchester Films

“I was tired of the two established, recognized recipes, drama with comedy relief and comedy with dramatic relief,” Lubitsch declared. “I made up my mind to make a picture with no attempt to relieve anybody from anything at any time...” A black comedy before there was black comedy, the political satire of To Be or Not To Be shocked audiences for whom World War II was a current reality. Lubitsch’s Nazis were portrayed as not only evil, but absurd and bumbling—or as human and laughable as the theater troupe attempting to subvert them. With the neurotic antics of Jack Benny and the surprising, scintillating delivery of Carole Lombard leading the way, the egotistical actors confront their greatest roles when Germany invades Poland. Lubitsch’s send-up of both the artifice of theater and the theater of politics hilariously and brilliantly challenges the audience with the question of “To Be or Not To Be” in all of its various guises. Lubitsch pulls the curtain back and forth on art and life so ingeniously that when these bumbling Shakespearean players must face actual death, bravery and dignity, they—and we—discover that pain and laughter, tragedy and comedy are not at war, but disturbingly close. 

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