In 1939 Warsaw, a troupe of actors is rehearsing an anti-Nazi play, but political pressure forces them to switch to “Hamlet”. After the German invasion of Poland, a spy arriving from England intends to pass information about the Polish resistance to the German occupiers. So the actors, dressed in their Nazi costumes, lure him into a trap. The spy is unintentionally shot during the sting and to cover it up, the thespians are forced to continue their charade … Ernst Lubitsch’s ambiguous anti-Nazi comedy has its roots in reality. Many a Jewish actor in exile from Germany was forced to earn his livelihood by playing Nazis. And there is nothing sentimental in Felix Bressart’s rendition of Shylock’s immortal monologue – “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” When Bressart delivers the speech to the German occupiers for the third time, the former spear-bearer, as a putative assassin of Hitler, finally gets to take centre stage: “And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” The 70 years of belly laughs that To Be or Not to Be has evoked in audiences is a fittingly effective revenge on the “thousand year Reich”.
by Ernst Lubitsch
with Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart