As I realised that Carole Lombard had died before the release of To Be or Not to Be, my mind – which had been trying for several days to find a way in which to deal with the intricate layers of the film – went blank.
Apart from the normal, yet perhaps naive -when it comes to cinema and to accidents – shock of seeing someone so lively and then realising he/she is dead, becoming aware of the fact that Lombard died while the film was still in post-production, of the fact that she had been and then stopped being, shed a new light – or perhaps new darkness – on the film.
Her death seemed to be the natural addition to To Be or Not to Be, which screened at the Austrian Film Museum last Tuesday. Even the inappropriateness of this impression, if there is indeed any trace of it, seems to be suited in discussing a film that has been repeatedly criticised over the years for its allegedly inappropriate manner of dealing with the delicate topic of National Socialism. On the one hand, Lombard’s death seems to be an addition because, seeing as the film explores the boundaries of truth and illusion, seriousness and play, repeatedly unmasking its own illusionary nature, her death seems yet another breaking of the illusion, only this time no longer within the illusion itself. It also seems to complete the film by putting an end to its on-the-edge mode. On the other hand, a closure in that sense is exactly what does not seem to fit to the film, as Lubitsch’ endings are often, as someone once described, the beginning all over again. And still, even this double implication of an aspect , the simultaneousness of on the one hand and on the other hand, somehow appears to fit into the greater scheme of this film, for it is a film loaded with twofold meanings and I am not referring to its wondrous dialogues alone.
It seems to me that in To Be or Not to Be Lubitsch finds and explores some profound similarities between the nature of film and National Socialism, creating a common vocabulary for the then-current political situation and the illusionary nature of film (and of acting in general), thus creating a scheme or a system of equivalences which in speech can actually not be better summed up than in the words of the film’s Colonel Ehrhardt: “What he did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland”. Political aspects are not only thematised, but also reflected in the film’s more formal(ish) aspects – its structure, its choice of genre and so on. Of course, the mere distinction of these inseparable aspects is to some extent a joke.
To Be or Not to Be appears to create an analogy between film as illusion and ideology as illusion. That the film’s self-reflexivity becomes apparent early on in the film, the viewer realising that he has been conned by the director, has often been discussed, and also, as someone brightly put it, “the illusion was acknowledged to be an illusion by the characters themselves, and that acknowledgment made it real”. And as it unmasks its own illusionary nature, To Be or Not to Be also unmasks the possible illusionary character of ideology – and here I doubt if the ideology I refer to is only National Socialism. Because the film does perhaps more than “unmask” and that “more” would be, I suppose, that it sleekly prompts the viewer to adopt a critical attitude. So the inability to distinguish between what is real and what is not comes up as a common element of art (film and theatre) and of the political circumstances. Does To Be or Not to Be by questioning its own means before proceeding to questioning the situation of the world not increase its critical (political) potential?
The film also reflects on its own choice of genre (though calling it a “choice” feels peculiar, seeing as Lubitsch made countless comedies) and its comedy functions at the same time as a means of reflecting the absurdity and confusion of unreflectively accepting an ideology or of war altogether, as well as a strong means of resistance and one of the finest means of attacking. A laugh is indeed nothing to be sneezed at and referring to the Führer as a will-be-piece-of-cheese does show balls.
I see in To Be or Not to Be countless other analogies between film and the effects of war and wonder if I am not stretching it too far. But the comedy of errors, with its instances of mistaken identity and its repeated switching of parts does seem to be the nearest equivalent in film language to the de-individualization one might assume war causes. Furthermore, the countless tangled situations the troupe of actors ends up in while trying to sabotage the plans of the Gestapo make it difficult to keep track of who is doing what and why and it is in allowing the viewer to wonder about that, as well as in the humour, that the critical-political quality or potential of To Be or Not To Be lays.
The uncertainty about how coherent the analogies in To Be or Not to Be actually are lingers on in my mind together with disparate bits of scenes – the joke about Hitler ending up as a piece of cheese, the fake beards, the “And if we should ever have a baby, I’m not so sure I’d be the mother” dialogue. One scene stands out from the messy melange of impressions and memories. The shock of it makes my mind freeze again because it cannot deal with this scene’s multitude of implications – Carole Lombard appearing at the rehearsals for the play in a stunning silky gown that she intends to wear in the concentration camp scenes.