This 1942 Screwball Comedy Inspired ‘Inglorious Basterds’
Actors dupe Nazis in the dark comedy classic ‘To Be or Not to Be’
Famed Polish actor Joseph Tura is deep behind enemy lines. It’s 1939 in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, and the old hack is trying to convince a Gestapo colonel that he’s really a German spy.
Tura is working for the Polish resistance. He’s wearing a false beard, glasses and the fancy dress of a dead man. He’s attempting to feed the Gestapo misinformation.
Despite his missed lines and blatant overacting, Tura pulls it off. The Gestapo officer buys his act. The resistance is safe for another night. But on the way out, Tura can’t resist a little self-promotion. He mentions he’ll soon be dining with the actress Maria Tura.
“She’s the wife of that famous Polish actor, Joseph Tura,” he explains while slipping on his jacket. “Perhaps you’ve heard of him?”
The colonel confesses that, yes, he had seen Tura once in a play before the war. “What he did to Shakespeare,” the colonel says. “We’re doing to Poland.”
This is the world of director Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 classic To Be Or Not To Be. A film that effortlessly moves between light and dark, comedy and tragedy, serious and silly. It’s a film jeered at its release and lauded now. A flick Quentin Tarantino borrowed from heavily when he wrote Inglorious Basterds.
To Be or Not to Be follows the exploits of Joseph and Maria Tura, a married pair of working actors and the self-described biggest stars in Poland. As the film opens, their theater company is working on a satire of the Nazis. The Polish government censors the play, not wanting to tempt Hitler to attack.
Upset but determined, the thespians transition from mocking Nazis to butchering Shakespeare. During a performance of Hamlet mere days after the government shut down their satire, Hitler invades.
After the attack, the actors wander the rubble of Warsaw. “There was no censor to stop them,” one of the troupe laments.
Their country in ruins, the troupe of actors—led by the Turas—get involved with the Polish resistance movement. They use the Nazi uniforms left over from the unperformed satire to trick the Gestapo and free their country.
It’s easy to dismiss To Be or Not to Be as just another throwaway comedy from the golden age of Hollywood. But to do that would be to miss out on one of the greatest dark comedies ever filmed.
Early in the film, Tura is playing the part of the Gestapo officer he will later deceive. He tricks a Nazi spy into giving over information to him rather than the real colonel. “In England,” the spy remarked. “They call you ‘Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.’”
“We do the concentrating,” Tura said. “And the Poles do the camping.”
This movie came out in March 1942. Think about that. World War II was raging. The United States had only been in the war for three months. Hitler was very much in power. Nazi leadership had just begun implementing the Holocaust.
Amid that climate, a German-Jewish director dropped a screwball comedy that dared to make light of a horrifying extant war. It didn’t matter that it satirized the enemy. People didn’t take it well. The movie flopped on release.
Jack Benny—who played Joseph Tura—watched his own father walk out of the movie. Seeing his son dressed as a Nazi disgusted him.
Carole Lombard played Benny’s wife Maria Tura. Lombard died in a plane crash a few months before the films release. Her fans were horrified that this was her final film.
The critics panned the picture as well, saying the whole thing was in poor taste. Lubitsch defended his vision. The actors rallied around him. Benny convinced his father to give the film another shot. After his initial discomfort passed, he loved it. He saw it 46 times.
Much like Benny’s father, audiences have gradually grown to love the film. It’s now recognized as one of Lubitsch’s best and an important piece of film history. After all these years, it still holds up.
The biggest reason why it still feels fresh is Lubitch’s ability to jar audiences with surreal contrasts.
When we first meet Maria Tura, she enters the stage of the censored Nazi satire wearing a stunning evening gown. She’s supposed to be playing a concentration camp victim. The director is incensed.
“Is that what you’re going to wear in the concentration camp?” he asked.
“Well don’t you think its pretty?” she said. “It’s a tremendous contrast. Think of me being flogged in the darkness. I scream. Suddenly the lights come on and the audience discovers me on the floor in this gorgeous dress.”
At one moment, everything is spy games, tense drama and breathtaking danger. In the middle of those tense scenes, Lubitsch employed the comedic talents of Benny and Lombard. They radiate throughout the film, lightening the mood every chance they get, but never quite pushing out the darkness.
On the surface, the film appears to be a screwball comedy set against the backdrop of Germany’s invasion of Poland. In reality, it is a subversive attack on Nazi Germany masquerading as a screwball comedy.
The debt Inglourious Basterds owes to To Be or Not to Be is easy to see. Tarantino’s war epic also plays with the delicate balance of light and dark, comedy and tragedy. The back half of both films are also very similar.
In both movies, actors and Allies team up to dupe, distract and destroy Nazi Germany. The best moments occur during tense moments when the targets of subterfuge begin to suspect they’re being fooled.
One of the best Inglourious Basterds scenes plays out in a basement tavern, as the German-speaking members of the Basterds attempt to salvage a failing mission. A long, tense discussion of skiing erupts into violence.
To Be Or Not To Be does the same thing in the backroom of a theater. The Nazi spy grows increasingly weary of Tura’s Gestapo impersonation before pulling a gun and leading the entire acting troupe on a manhunt through the seats and stages of their home.
The final act of both films occur in a theater during a visit from the Fuhrer. Actors schmooze their way past the guards. Characters sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Both films revised history.
Lubitsch also used repetition to drive home the tragedy of the war and the ridiculousness of Nazi ideology. Scenes occur two and three times. The characters change positions, but the dialogue stays the same and context dictates the mood.
One minor character delivers Shylock’s famous monologue from Merchant of Venice. Three times. He’s always wanted to play the part. His first rendition is hilariously awful, the second is heartbreaking and the third is devastating.
What’s incredible is Lubitsch’s ability to show the audience the same thing again and again, but change the scenery and circumstances enough to affect a different outcome. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
This film is a fantastic mockery of the Nazi party and its absurd and deadly ideology. In one moment, it laughs at the crude monsters Hitler and his leadership had become, and the next drives home the danger of their message.
Early in the film, the troupe’s director criticizes the actor playing Hitler in the censored satire. He pulls the makeup artist over. Something isn’t right, the director explains. He’s not menacing enough. He doesn’t smell like Hitler.
“To me,” the director says, “he’s just a man with a little mustache.”
“But so is Hitler,” the makeup artist replies.