Before delving into its central narrative, the film’s opening scenes, showing the rehearsal of a play denouncing the Nazis, outline some of its major themes and strategies. The film often makes evident and straightforward points against the Nazi Party such as when the opening voice-over narration declares that although Hitler is a vegetarian, "sometimes he swallows up whole countries." Also, the play being rehearsed by the Polish acting troupe ("Gestapo") suggests the Nazi police will do things such as bribe little children into confessing that their parents once spoke bad of the Fuehrer. Satire playing on the intense fear generated by the fascist soldiers shows one of their own men accidentally insult Hitler with a joke. Unable to explain or justify his statement, the soldier stammers around before deciding to shout a "Heil Hitler!" and saluting. This seems to satisfy the other guard who mimics him, and the exchange shows how mistakes can be overlooked as long as there is mindless, autonomic loyalty. Although this scene occurs within the play rehearsal, it is later repeated by a ‘real’ Nazi official, illustrating one of the film’s themes: how art, specifically the drama of the stage, reflects life. The film deliberately confuses viewer expectations so that the rehearsal appears to be a glimpse inside an office of the Gestapo. The illusion is only broken after the actor playing Hitler responds to his men’s salutes with a serious "Heil myself" and infuriates the playwright observing. He instructs the actors that the play is supposed to be a critique of the Nazis and has to be played straight, with no laughs—a guideline the film ignores.
Reality (of the film) and fiction continue to merge throughout the movie, and this strategy often works to belittle the Nazis and their leader. The playwright complains that the actor playing Hitler doesn’t look like the Fuehrer, "just a man with a little moustache"; someone replies that is all the real Hitler is as well, countering the leader’s intended mythic and idolized image. More subtly, the voice-over used for the film’s joke beginning also describes the more serious matter of the Polish rebellion, further mixing the story’s fact and fiction. The fact that the "great, great actor" (or ham, depending on your point-of-view) Josef Tura can easily disguise himself as a Nazi and dupe them is more evidence of their incompetence. Comic scenes involve the real Colonel Ehrhardt acting as egotistically and as stupidly as Tura did when previously pretending to be him, proudly repeating, "So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt, eh?" An interesting sequence involves the shooting of the fascist Professor Siletsky by the Polish lieutenant in the theater. The professor has been chased around this location until the curtain is raised to reveal him shot and dying on stage, again equating reality with art. The film shows how accurate a fictional play or an actor can come to the truth of a situation, so that when the "Gestapo" play is censored because it could offend Hitler, it is suggested that the Nazis are silencing truth with their actions. With Warsaw turned to rubble, one of the Polish actors comments sadly that unfortunately "there is no censor to stop them."
Fascism is attacked throughout by exaggerating its flawed logic into comedic situations. Maria Tura plays along with Professor Siletsky’s attempt to seduce her and convert her to "the right side…the winning side". After they kiss she ludicrously whispers, "Heil Hitler" to which the professor responds in kind, showing how Nazism is a complete mindset that can pollute all aspects of life. Ehrhardt is constantly, inadvertently insulting Hitler with throwaway comments, just like in the play, and he must fearfully plead with a disguised Tura not to report him and ruin his career. The movie portrays the Nazi leader as such an easy target for ridicule, even his own men cannot help but deride him. Ehrhardt is also constantly pushing off his failures and misjudgments on an underling named Schultz, displaying an inability to admit mistakes or take responsibility. The Polish actor disguised as Hitler, in bearing a strong resemblance to the Fuehrer, compromises his authoritarian image by doing things like jumping into Tura’s arms when a bomb goes off. He is able to command absolute obedience, however, from two Nazi pilots to whom he tells to jump out of an open airplane door; they follow his order, immediately and unquestioningly. Clearly, the film posits that a political ideology which leads people to behave in this absurd manner is flawed and dangerous.
Not all of the narrative is played for humor, as a large portion of the film works as a more conventional political thriller. When the Polish lieutenant and Maria’s brief romance is interrupted by the news of war, she states the nature of the conflict simply but accurately: "People will kill each other and be killed." The two actors who were constantly complaining about their small roles soon wish they could have even those back as war’s destruction continues. When the professor gives Maria empty rhetoric about how the Nazis just want to "create a happy world", she responds with, "and those that don’t want to be happy have no place in it." Her comment shows an understanding of the totalitarian, violent nature of fascism which threatens to destroy those who don’t fit into its worldview.
To Be or Not to Be takes its title from Hamlet, another play containing a play that explains or mimics events in the outer world. Lubitsch’s timely film wields a sharp satirical edge that cuts at one of the most dangerous threats of modern civilization, although fascism’s complete destruction would not be discovered until several years later. It was bold enough to focus on and belittle the Nazi Party when they possessed considerable power and their ultimate role in history was as of yet undefined. It is a political, antifascist, and ultimately entertaining work that tells a humorous fantasy about a group of actors using their craft to outwit and escape the destructive forces around them.
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