For Reel

To Be or Not to Be (1942)
January 4, 2015, 7:48 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
4 Stars
To Be or Not To BeDirector Ernst Lubitsch’s most radical film was understandably not met with universal appreciation at the time of its release. Making jokes involving the dire circumstances of the era didn’t sit well with many audiences, including New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who said, “To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case.” It is a misunderstanding, however, to suggest that To Be or Not to Be is as simple as a making light of the Nazi agenda. While it undoubtedly does have its fun at the expense of fascism, it is most representative of Lubitsch’s particular skill at mixing comedy with tragedy. That is, the film has remained such a classic because of the precarious balance it strikes in both lampooning the Nazi cause and in doing justice to the high stakes horror of the situation. The multitude of hilarious inflections of “Heil Hitler!” never undermines the fact that men are performing as mindless machines for the most evil of causes. Jack Benny, who Lubitsch had in mind from the inception of the project, is perfectly cast for this type of production. The corners of his lips are always pointed downwards in a half-frown, his one-liners delivered with a caustic cynicism. His is one of the great comedic performances of the period.

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