It’s hard to underestimate the impact Ernst Lubitsch has had on the career of Mel Brooks. The famous comedic director was a master at mixing potent social satire with big laughs, memorable characters and rapid-fire dialogue in classics like Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner and To Be or Not to Be.
The latter 1942 masterpiece had such an impact on Brooks that he remade the film in 1983. The result is absolutely wonderful and stands out among Brooks’ films because it is not a spoof but rather a faithful remake of a very funny, sophisticated film.
Brooks casts himself in his best role as Polish theater performer Frederick Bronski. He and his wife, Anna (played by Brook’s real-life wife, Anne Bancroft), put on shows in Warsaw to help the people forget the troubles of WWII. In August 1939, the month before Germany invades Poland, tensions are high among the Bronskis and their faithful troupe of theater performers. Frederick’s skits mocking Adolf Hitler are soon shut down by the foreign office, and Anna is spending her backstage time schmoozing with a handsome young pilot (Tim Matheson). Soon after, Poland is invaded and bombed to rubble, and the Bronski Theater is closed down. Even the Bronskis’ home is forcibly turned into Gestapo headquarters.
But there are bigger threats afoot. Once Anna hears of a plot by Professor Siletski (a brilliant Jose Ferrer) to betray the Polish underground to the Germans, she hatches a plot with her fellow performers to stop the list of names from getting into German hands. There’s also the matter of the theater troupe’s harboring of several Jewish families, as the fear of getting found out and the stakes get higher and higher.
Nothing about that plot summary sounds like a Mel Brooks movie, and that turns out to be a very good thing. The story is complicated, perhaps even a bit overstuffed, but it’s dripping with political intrigue, assassination plots and compelling confrontations. Brooks, like Lubitsch before him, treats the subject seriously, and it shows. The original film’s potent political subtext has lost nothing in the adaptation.
Another aspect of the original present and accounted for is its biting, acerbic wit and masterful situational comedy. Brooks relies much more heavily on this approach, letting funny performances play themselves out rather than writing in a bunch of jokes or puns. The result is a refreshing change of comedic pace for Brooks. There are several classic cases of mistaken identity here that really get bit laughs, but I wouldn’t dream of ruining them for anyone.
Since this is the re-telling of an old story, the movies’ biggest pleasures come in the form of its magnificent performances. Brooks has never been better or more subtle here, playing a flesh-and-blood character rather than a stereotype. His style is different than Jack Benny’s, but he really embodies the character while still making it his own. Bancroft plays Anna as a sophisticated sex symbol, someone who can use her charms against any man to get what she wants. She’s sultry but also fiercely intelligent and independent, something I’m sure made her character an early feminist icon when Carole Lombard played her in the original. Ferrer and Charles Durning work wonders as the film’s Nazi villains, and Christopher Lloyd has a hilarious small part as a blunderingly idiotic Nazi officer.
But the biggest and best surprise here in this remake is the addition of Sasha, Anna’s gay wardrobe dresser (played with surprising subtlety by James Haake). The scenes between them are both tragic and tender, such as a scene where Sasha says that, just as Jews are forced to wear gold stars, homosexuals are forced to wear “pink triangles” when out in public. His character reminds us that Jews were not the only ones persecuted by the Nazis; groups such as gays and other foreign minorities were smaller in number, but their suffering should not be overlooked.
It may be surprising to read about so much depth and subtlety from a Mel Brooks film, but I think it shows the enduring legacy of the indelible original To Be or Not to Be, as well as Brooks’ wisdom in remaking it. This is classic Brooks and classic Lubitsch; smart and sophisticated, with just enough edge to keep you on your toes. The only part where Brooks’ film suffers is in comparison to the brilliant original, one of the greatest films of all time. Brooks’ version doesn’t pack quite the same punch, but the fact that his remake works at all, let alone this well, should be counted as some minor miracle. He puts his own spin on the classic tale, and the results are very much worth your time.