Comedies about Nazis make people nervous, and the tone of To Be or Not to Be, a remake of the 1942 Ernst Lubitsch film, keeps switching uncomfortably from the farcical to the serious. Although essentially a farce, the movie, which follows the original closely, is grounded in the reality of the Second World War as a Polish theatre troupe tries to escape from behind German lines. Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft as Frederick and Anna Bronski take over the roles originated by Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, a husband and wife who become embroiled in the affairs of the Third Reich after their theatre closes down.
As Frederick declaims his Highlights From Hamlet each night in a white wig, a handsome army officer, André Sobinski (Tim Matheson), sneaks backstage to rendezvous with Anna. After the invasion of Poland, Sobinski shadows a spy (José Ferrer) who has a list of the Polish underground for the Gestapo. The plot revolves around the retrieval of the list. Frederick impersonates various Nazi officials as the troupe plans its great escape.
Like its predecessor, To Be or Not to Be is a giddy, light, romantic comedy with an unsettling subtext—it is oddball in a frightening way. The Lubitsch film poked fun at stock Nazi figures, too, but what was comic relief for an audience in the thick of the war has changed drastically for a modern one:
the memory of the Nazi machine has too much evil resonance for the satire to be merely ticklish. The disguises and hilarious mix-ups in To Be or Not to Be, while occasionally examples of overkill comedy, are often entertaining; but their bitter context lends the movie a somewhat addled air.
Smoothly directed by Alan Johnson, a choreographer, To Be or Not to Be is also a tribute to the people who work in the theatre. As the Bronskis, Brooks and Bancroft make a superb Mutt-andJeff comic team. He is short and broadgestured and scurries through the action frantically; she is sleek, vocally velvet and looks stunning in her 1930s gowns which cling to her sexily. As superficially mismatched as the two characters are, they still function beautifully together; their marriage is like a car with a lot of mechanical problems, but one that manages to run each time they want it to. The members of the supporting cast, led by the delightful Charles Durning as an anxious Nazi, whose large thigh keeps slipping each time he sits on the corner of his desk, all come from theatrical backgrounds. In fact, the best line in the movie is when Brooks reacts to reports that the Gestapo is rounding up gypsies as well as homosexuals and Jews: “Without Jews, fags and gypsies,” he declares, “there is no theatre.” At its most convincing, To Be or Not to Be is a quirky valentine to the out of step—those who toil in the theatre—and the audience roots for their difference as well as their freedom.
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