Theatre in Film: To Be Or Not To Be (1983)

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

August 30, 2016

Have a love affair with theatre and film? Me too! It’s an ongoing relationship that’s a thrill to have, and Performer Stuff’s Theatre in Film series celebrates the great films that effectively depict a life in the theatre. Part III in our ongoing tribute to theatre-centric cinema continues with Mel Brooks’ 1983 comedy, To Be Or Not To Be, a remake of the 1942 original.

To Be Or Not To Be (1983)

Director: Mel Brooks
Starring: Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Tim Matheson, José Ferrer, Charles Durning, James Haake, and Christopher Lloyd

What happens:

Poland, 1939. A Warsaw theatre company led by husband-and-wife team Frederick and Anna Bronski (Brooks and Bancroft) performs in the days leading up to the Nazi occupation of Poland. Immediately before performing a play that parodies Hitler, the troupe is reprimanded by the Polish government and must perform Frederick’s Highlights from Hamlet (a long-winded and self-indulgent attempt at honoring Shakespeare’s best-known work). During Frederick’s “To be or not to be” speech, a young fighter pilot, Lieutenant Andrei Sobinski (Tim Matheson), escapes to Mrs. Bronski’s dressing room and spends time there with her and her dresser, Sasha (James Haake). During one of these meetings, the company finds out that Nazis have crossed the border into Poland. War is imminent. Sobinski leaves for duty.

The Nazis take everything, leaving the Bronskis and many of their employees homeless. Leiutenant Sobinski has meanwhile met with Professor Siletski (José Ferrer), a British officer and spy for the Germans, who has secret plans to expose names of resistance members to the Nazis. Sobinski travels to war-torn Warsaw and teams up with the Bronskis to defeat Professor Siletski. Over the course of a few days, the Bronskis, Lieutenant Sobinski, and the theatre troupe use their theatrical experience in acting and costuming to convince Nazi officers that Frederick is, at separate times, the dead Siletski and Hitler. They escape to safety in Britain in a plane after dodging German gunfire.

Why it matters:

Despite the bleak circumstances To Be Or Not To Be showcases, the film is a raucous comedy in the Mel Brooksian style, complete with mistaken identities, false beards, bumbling S.S. officers, flustered German soldiers (Christopher Lloyd in particular), and a purpose beyond comedy.

To Be Or Not To Be is a remake of the 1942 film of the same name, directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Carole Lombard and Jack Benny. The original film, at the time of its release, provided social and political commentary on the war, which was a clear and present danger to Europe: World War II officially began with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and the outlook was grim. By the end of September in 1944, the entire city of Warsaw had been destroyed by the Germans. Where Lubitsch’s film mainly focuses on the theatre troupe’s plight and the destruction of Warsaw, Brooks’ film includes another victim of Hitler’s wrath: the homosexual population of Europe.

In the same way the members of the Jewish faith were forced to wear a large Star of David on their clothing, homosexual men and women were required to wear an upside down pink triangle. (Today, this symbol has been reappropriated as a representation of gay pride and gay rights.) After the Nazis invade Poland, the Bronskis are forced to move somewhere else; Sasha offers his apartment. In a scene where Sasha is in the middle of leaving for a date, Anna sees that he has sewn a pink triangle to his clothing. “What’s that?” she asks. Suddenly reminded of this symbol, he tells her sadly that they, too, have to wear markers of oppression.

In a later scene, Nazi soldiers in search of Sasha invade the theater during a performance. Anna and the rest of the cast hide Sasha by dressing him up in a showgirl costume so he can perform in the show (and claim he is only an actor in drag, not a gay man). He performs the number with Frederick until the soldiers storm the stage, arrest Sasha, and detain him in preparation for transport to a concentration camp. Luckily, through Anna’s clever trickery and Frederick’s disguise as the dead Professor Siletski, they later convince Colonel Erhardt (Charles Durning) to release Sasha. If nothing else, To Be Or Not To Be is a shining example of the kind of haven theatres represent to those groups who require protection from religious or social persecution.

Below is a music video of the song “To Be Or Not To Be (The Hitler Rap)” that was released on the film’s soundtrack. Brooks satirized Hitler in a number that was derived from the burlesque show within the film. It includes the line from The Producers’ show-within-a-show, Springtime for Hitler: “Don’t be stoopid, be a smarty. Come and join the Nazi Party”.

This film is the first featured in Part III of “Theatre in Film”. See below for the others in Part III.


Want to start with Part I? Check out 42nd Street (1933). Didn’t get to read Part II? Begin with The Band Wagon (1953).

Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Masters Degree in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, an actor, and’s Editor. 
Thumbnail image from To Be Or Not To Be. Photo copyright © 20th Century Fox 1983.