A review requested by Jenny B, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

I have been guilty of this sin as recently as in the middle of re-watching the film for this review, but I think I can still say without hesitation: it's much, much too easy to overlook how bold To Be or Not to Be is. The 1942 film, that is, not the 1983 remake that paired married couple Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks in their only co-starring lead roles, and is in all ways a genial comedy that replicates its source material without any of the same fire. That, of course, is what happens when you treat World War II as a 38-years-gone historical event where the good guys won, instead of the thing happening literally right now to actual living people. To Be or Not to Be went into production before America had entered the conflict - it is vital to remember that about it. While the random American plucked off the street in 1941 surely favored joining the war on the side of the Allies, thanks to a lingering kinship with the United Kingdom, a meaningful segment of U.S. citizens favored siding with the Axis right up until the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Hollywood threw a lot of energy at the pro-Allies side of that argument in the months preceding that (if there's such a thing as a major studio film from '40 and '41 making a pro-fascist declaration, I'm unfamiliar with it, though between 1933 and 1939, there are some here and there that present that belief in quiet and implicit ways), but even in that exciting atmosphere of righteous propaganda, To Be or Not to Be stands out. It is one of the vanishingly small number of movies to look at the pomp and pageantry of Nazism, the passionate furor of Adolf Hitler, and the terrifying ease with which Germany absorbed huge swaths of Western and Central Europe, and conclude that braying, derisive laughter was precisely the right weapon. Offhand, I can only point to the 1940 Charles Chaplin film The Great Dictator as another example of staring straight into Hitler's face and snorting, "That man is a fucking clown".

Divorced from its immediate moment, it's all too easy to find To Be or Not to Be a somewhat weirdly-shaped object, and by no means one of the highlights in the career of director Ernst Lubitsch. That man's stock in trade was, of course, a succession of the most effervescent, elegant sophisticated comedies produced in the '20s and '30s. The famed, seldom-defined "Lubitsch Touch" broadly referred to his ability to express his characters' sexual ardor and inner monologues through clever, witty visual touches and sparkling dialogue that glancingly touched on seriously adult topics, resulting in some of the most disarmingly grown-up movies that have ever been made, and always in a register of deeply intoxicating good humor. To Be or Not to Be doesn't have the luxury of delicacy; there are long stretches that feel more like Lubitsch Thumb pressing down on the scales. Not unfairly: the Berlin-born director, who'd been in Hollywood for almost a decade when the Nazis came to power in 1933 and never returned home, undoubtedly had some very pronounced and very angry thoughts about what was going on back in Europe (he wrote, uncredited, the story for the film; Edwin Justus Mayer wrote the script), ones that he hadn't nearly exorcised in the 1939 romcom Ninotchka, his only other openly political movie during the war years, and that focused more towards the Soviet Union, with only a handful of nods towards Nazi Germany.

Still, this is an odd fit for the agreed-upon definition of a Lubitsch movie, and his immaculately well-honed skills in making sophisticated romantic comedies aren't always what the movie needs. As the title implies, To Be or Not to Be has a little something to do with Shakespeare: its central figures are a troupe of actors working out of Warsaw in August, 1939, led by the vain ham Joseph Tura (Jack Benny), playing Hamlet and present, and his diaphanous, bored wife Maria (Carole Lombard, extraordinary in her last role - she died in a plane crash before the film opened), whose role isn't specified, but as the solitary woman in the company, it makes sense to assume she's playing an experimental hybrid of Gertrude and Ophelia. Something has gone out of the Tura marriage; it seems easy to assume that Joseph's preening and neurotic, needy self-regard are at least part of it, which is why we simply can't feel too bad when Maria agrees to let a handsome young admirer, the pilot Lt. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), into her dressing room during her husband's angst-filled rendition of the "To be or not to be" monologue one night. And other nights, and some afternoons. This hasn't actually turned into sex yet when a performance of the play is interrupted by the German invasion of Poland on 1 September. And from there, everybody's lives go to hell; the film flashes through then-recent history until winter, when Stanislav has become one of several Polish airmen attached to the RAF, and Warsaw is home to a robust resistance movement trying its best to shake the Nazi grip of its beloved city.

This triggers a chain of farcical events that wouldn't be remotely worth recapping; it's enough to say that the Turas, as well as the other members of their troupe, including the Jewish actor Greenberg (Felix Bessart) and Bronski (Tom Dugan), who has been working on his Hitler impersonation, are obliged to stage a hectic series of cons and tricks to help Stanislav keep the turncoat Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) from meeting with the puffed-up Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) and revealing devastating information about the Warsaw underground. That provides a lot of material for the Lubitsch Touch to work on, with the Turas' strained marriage and Maria's eminently sophisticated approach to play-acting at having a lover even without the real intent to have an affair working in exactly the area of intelligently sexual comedy that was home to the director's very best work, and the pile-up of farce showcasing his ability to keep timing and pacing under ruthless control, while letting the audience get out just far enough ahead of the characters that we can be really surprised when they go a direction that we didn't anticipate.

It's not all-time championship Lubitsch: he was a filmmaker uniquely dinged by the coming of the Production Code and its clamping down on even the most erudite, classy lechery. But the film is operating in two totally distinct comic modes and both of them are executed perfectly, with the naughty marital comedy sneaking and slinking along with Lombard's breathy voice and Benny's huffy over-reactions (there's a special kind of genius in dropping an overacting broad comic like Benny into an elegant comedy, and then re-casting his broadness as a failure of the character, not the actor), and the brute-force gags of the more direct screwball comedy blasting forth like cannon fire. For example, the film's gotcha opening, set during rehearsals for a play about Nazi venality that's presented to us as actual Nazi venality at first, is overclocked so slightly and flawlessly that Lubitsch is able to wring genuine laughs out of a series of rapid-fire "Heil Hitler"s. Or there's the way that the line "So, they call me 'Concentration Camp Ehrhardt'" can be repeated numerous times throughout the movie, always in just enough of a different context that it can be funny for a totally different reason. Hell, there's the way that the line "So, they call me 'Concentration Camp Ehrhardt'" can be played for laughs in the first place.

All well and good, and the big hole in the side of To Be or Not to Be is that it's a full-on spy thriller that has been engineered into a comedy about a low-rent acting troupe tricking the Nazis. And this finds Lubitsch... not failing. Like comedies, thrillers are dependent on pitch-perfect timing, so the skill sets involved aren't totally incompatible. Lubitsch's directorial style in particular was always based in large part on the arrangement of people within rooms, so we can see what's going on between them more clearly than they can; this is a skill that's arguably even more important for thrillers than comedies. And yet the thriller elements of the film feel a bit roughly grafted onto the comedy, even though at the level of writing, it's the thriller that drives the plot.

What it is, I think, is the film announcing itself a bit too loudly as wartime morale-boosting: "Yes, it's good and necessary to make fun of these Teutonic blowhards and their idiotic beliefs and merciless dominance of beautiful Europe", it says on the one hand, before flipping abruptly into "and don't forget the incredible bravery of those on the front lines fighting to cut Germany off at the knees, despite horrible danger". That's a rough tonal switch to handle, and with cinematographer Rudolph MatΓ© doing such an outstanding job of making the nighttime Warsaw of spies and counterspies look so moody and grim, the film's reversions to deft comedy feel awfully damn weird.

But that's if we're watching the film solely through the lens of Lubitsch's other films, or as a comedy film divorced from anything but the most generic considerations of comedy form, and that's why I started by pointing out how inseparable the film is from its moment in history. In that light, it's a satiric marvel, mercilessly lampooning the cult of personality that Nazism had burned into its core - I unhesitatingly prefer it to The Great Dictator, which roundly mocked Hitler without seeming to have quite as clear a sense of just how horrible he and his regime were - and then skittering into a gloomy depiction of what those buffoons were capable of. Mockery, bleakness, mockery, bleakness; it's more a rhetorical structure than a cinematic one, but it is outstanding in that regard.

Not that audiences or critics thought it of it as such in 1942, when its message was freshest. Audiences knew damn good and well what kind of wickedness the Germans were up to, and didn't need to be confronted with it in a comedy; the consensus at the time was that the film was making too light of the real situation in Poland, and that presenting a comedy about vain actors alongside a satire of German militarism was in deeply questionable taste. Let me not tell the good people of 1942 what they should think about wartime satire. They were living through wartime, and know more about it than I. But it's tremendously difficult to look at this movie and think it's making light of the occupation of Poland. I find the message of the plot, driven by sexual jealous and the professional frustration of actors with more ambition than talent, to be that people are always going to people, even in the grim mire of occupied Warsaw; and how marvelous that these messy, difficult, tetchy people could still be raised up to do their best when faced with evil; that even in the face of the worst humanity has to offer, life still goes on in whatever ways it possibly can, and that people can be brave and heroic even if they're vainglorious twerps most of the time. It's optimistic and heartfelt without bopping us over the head with it - okay, sometimes it bops us a bit, like the increasingly obvious references to Greenberg's love of the "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech from Merchant of Venice. But having presented us with the cruelty of the Nazis and the ludicrous absurdity of Nazis in a barrage of the most pointed English-language film satire of World War II, I appreciate that the film has that kind of essential belief in humankind, and while it's not close to my favorite Lubitsch film, I am absolutely glad he made it exactly how and exactly when he did.