Lubitsch’s “To be or not to be” – A Film about Exile by an exiled Film Director
„It is August 1939. Europe is still at peace“, a speaker introduces to the Ernst Lubitsch’s film „To be or not be“ from 1942. Life at Warsaw seemed to be peaceful and usual when suddenly something caught the people’s attention: „the man with the little mustache, Adolf Hitler“ was walking down the streets of the city. But it turned out, the man with the little mustache here was Mr. Bronski, actor of a theatre company which is planning to stage a new play, called „Gestapo“. He wanted to prove, that he looks like Hitler but his plan is corrupted by a little girl asking Mr. Bronski for an autograph.
A few days later the play is cancelled on behalf of the Polish government which fears to provoke the Germans with an antifascist satire and worsen tensions between the two countries.
So they continue to perform Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the main roles act the couple Maria and Josef Tura. Josef, vain and self-confident, plays the Hamlet. But when he starts the monologue „To be or not to be…“ a young man is interrupting him by leaving obviously. His name is Stanislav Sobinski, a Polish flier and desperate in love with Josef’s famous wife. He meets Maria in her dressing room and leaves an confused and infuriated Josef Tura behind.
Even without any cultural offense by the theatre, war breaks out and Poland is overrun by German warfare. Some Guerilla fights take place in the streets of Warsaw, „but the real fight for Polish freedom was led somewhere in England“, as Speaker tells us. The Polish exile-government with president Władysław Raczkiewicz and prime-minister Władysław Sikorski first established in France after the German attack, then flew to London in June 1940.
Sobinski, Maria’s young admirer, manages to flee to London. But he has to come back to Warsaw to identify the deceptive Professor Siletsky as a traitor and German collaborator. Siletsky has information for Gruppenführer Erhard in Warsaw: the names and families of the Polish pilots in England. In fact: Polish Squadrons flew under the British RAF-command during the Second World War. For example the Kościuszko Squadron, formed by Polish refugees to join the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain. Maybe Sobinski was one of them.
At this point a confusing comedy develops: the theatre ensemble’s acting talent and a fake beard causes the actors to leave Warsaw for London where Tura can play the Hamlet again.
The film is based on the Novel „Noch ist Polen nicht verloren“ (Poland is not yet lost) by Melchior Legyel and shot in 1942 in the USA by Ernst Lubitsch. The title “Noch ist Polen nicht verloren” refers to the beginning of the Polish National anthem.
So, like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator from 1940 it was made during the time of the Second World War and when the Holocaust was happening. And it is small wonder that his film, in contrast to this day, was criticized by his tasteless and played down comedy: „As it is, one has the strange feeling that Mr. Lubitsch is a Nero, fiddling while Rome burns“.(1)
Lubitsch, Polish and born in Berlin, left Germany for Hollywood in 1922. He was one among many film directors, producers, cinematographers and stars who went to Hollywood in the 1920s. Their migration was not forced by political or religious persecution but caused on the opportunities of a Hollywood career.
In Germany regarded as un-German and marked as „The Typical Jew“ (2) while the Americans complained about his Germaneness, that he should better hide, Lubitsch was confronted with the problems of an exile-life, which he puts in the film: the problematic of the performance of reality, the mimicry and masquerade, cultural camouflage, mistaken identity, impersonation and cross-dressing.
He died of a heart attack in 1947 in Hollywood.
Today “To be or not to be” is recognized as a classic comedy.
(2) Gemünden, Gerd, Space out of Joint: Ernst Lubitsch’s “To be or not to be”, in: New German Critique 89 (2003), S. 59-80.