Comedy is supposedly tragedy plus time, but Ernst Lubitsch’s WWII screwball classic To Be or Not to Be (1942, 1 hr., 39 mins., Not Rated) dared to take time out of the equation and ended up as one of Hollywood’s funniest, and most poignant, classics. Released only three months after the United States declared war on Germany — and two months after its female lead, Carole Lombard, died in a plane crash — the film mines rich, glittering veins of humor within the rubble of Nazi-occupied Warsaw, where a troupe of Polish thespians, led by Jack Benny’s egotistical ham, try to keep the names of resistance fighters out of German hands.
The movie was hardly an instant success. While some contemporary critics found it Sieg Heil-arious, many accused Lubitsch of the cardinal sin of bad taste, insisting that the Third Reich was a third rail, and that the film trivialized the Nazi Party’s real menace. Lubitsch, himself a German-born Jew, countered that he was attempting something new by fusing drama’s two masks into one Janus-like creation, calling it ”a tragical farce, or a farcical tragedy.” (Mel Brooks got the joke: He starred in the 1983 remake.)
Criterion’s new release comes with a few archival EXTRAS, including a 2010 French documentary on Lubitsch and one of the director’s silent shorts from his years on the Continent, Pinkus’s Shoe Palace. Still, the film itself is the real star, and it’s astounding how well it has aged. It’s rare to find a comedy that feels so airy it might float away at any moment…were it not being anchored by the gravity of its subject matter. A