To Be or Not to Be is sort of an odd duck among Mel Brooks films. Aside from voice-over work and TV guest shots, it’s about his only major role in a film he didn’t write or direct. While long on slapstick, it’s the closest thing to serious that Brooks has been at any point of his career, dealing with the Nazi occupation of Poland and the Holocaust, however obliquely. It also has the most cohesive storyline of any Brooks film since Young Frankenstein.
Brooks plays Frederick Bronski, a world-famous Polish actor as long as the world includes nothing outside of Warsaw. He’s the head of the Bronski Theater Company and unhappily married to his co-star, Anna Bronski (Ann Bancroft), a flirtatious prima donna who’s being romanced/stalked by a young pilot named Lieutenant Sobinski (Tim Matheson, basically playing Otter from Animal House in a flight suit). It’s late-August of 1939 and, as you might guess, the Bronski company is about to be seriously inconvenienced by the German army. Lieutenant Sobinski flees to England to fly with the Polish Squadrons of the RAF. He returns to Poland escorting a Professor Siletski (José Ferrer) on a mission to organize the Polish resistance. It turns out that Siletski is really a Nazi collaborator and Sobinski’s cryptic love letters to Mrs. Bronski have landed her squarely in the sights of the Gestapo.
In order to keep his wife’s name from winding up on the Gestapo’s shit list, Frederick Bronski winds up giving the performance(s) of a lifetime as he impersonates the head of the Gestapo in Poland, Col. Erhardt (Charles Durning) and Siletski himself and Bronski is ultimately forced to stand in for the top of the Nazi power structure.
The background of the film is populated with vivid cast of broadly comic characters, especially Anna Bronski’s flamboyantly gay dresser, Sasha (James Haake), who obviously has his own reason to fear the Gestapo’s reach. There also Captain Shultz (Christopher Lloyd), Erhardt’s rigidly Prussian but easily flustered aide.
It’s a shame that this genuinely funny film didn’t meet with more success when it was first released. I think it might have been the failure of this film and Life Stinks that led him down the safer, well-trod path of Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It. It would have been interesting to see what a more adventurous Mel Brooks might have come up with over the last decade-and-a-half.