No. 6: To Be or Not to Be
Ernst Lubitsch makes us masters of our own destiny
1942, dir. Ernst Lubitsch. Writing about the difference between classical and contemporary drama, W.H. Auden argued it was all a matter of choice: Oedipus, for example, is cursed because he can’t control his fate, while Hamlet, say, is doomed because he can. It’s a great observation by which to consider Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece: Placing Shakespeare’s famous play in Nazi-occupied Poland, all that brooding by the Danish prince seems both absurd and wonderfully touching. The actors think they’re the masters of their destiny; the Nazis have other plans.
Such is the tension at the heart of the movie, and it is a testament to Lubitsch’s genius that he turns it into an uproarious string of funny and poignant scenes. Most involve Joseph Tura (Jack Benny), a pompous actor but a decent human being who puts aside his thespian aspirations to bravely play a part in resisting Hitler and his goons. By pretending to be an assortment of Nazi officials, including the Fuhrer himself, Tura and his friends prevail, proving to themselves (and us) that, in the end, we’re all responsible for our own fates—even those living under the most detrimental historical conditions imaginable. And if we’re going to take charge of our lives, we might as well do it with aplomb. After all, all the world’s a stage.