The remake or not the remake, that is the question facing wartime satire To Be Or Not To Be…

In a universe where comedy and tragedy are locked in diametric opposition around the dark star of history, TO BE OT NOT TO BE exists in two distinct orbits: the 1942 original by Ernst Lubitsch and its 1983 counterpart by Mel Brooks. These films, while sharing a title, premise and much the same script, diverge in their comedic trajectories, offering a fascinating study in contrast, particularly when viewed through the lens of contemporary critical reactions and the ever-evolving tastes of audiences.

Of course, its long been critical convention to lionise Lubitsch’s 1942 original for its contemporary courage and arch subtlety while dismissing Mel Brooks’ remake as unnecessary and in crassly poor taste. However, Brooks’ version is well overdue for a reappraisal and recognition for its achievements in its own right. Where Lubitsch opted for a satirical scalpel, Brooks approaches the gravity of World War II with a sledgehammer and yet Brooks’ rendition does not so much detract from the historical context as it chooses to engage with it through a different modality: accessibility. Brooks’ humour serves as a Trojan Horse, inviting audiences into a narrative that, beneath its guffaws and exaggerated slapstick performances, carries as sharp a critique of Nazism and the absurdities of war as its lauded predecessor. Brooks’ approach, while more overt, does not cheapen the film’s thematic significance; rather, it democratises its message, making it resonant for an audience that had moved on from the immediate post-war sensibilities.

The decades between the different versions of TO BE OR NOT TO BE’s releases plays a critical role in their reception and appraisal. By the early ’80s, audiences had the benefit of that historical distance, allowing Brooks more creative leeway to push boundaries without the immediate, raw emotional context that surrounded Lubitsch’s release during the war. This distance possibly contributed to a reception that, while mixed, was less charged with the controversy that Lubitsch faced.

Brooks’s approach to the gravity of World War II can best be described as using a whoopee cushion at a solemn ceremony—not to disrespect, but to remind us that even in our most dire moments, humanity’s absurdity is worth a giggle. This is not to say Brooks turns the historical context into a mere backdrop for pratfalls; illuminates the ridiculousness of Nazi ideology with the bright, unforgiving light of slapstick and puns. It’s as if Brooks decided that if history is a tragedy, then the only appropriate response is to throw a pie in its face.

While both films excel in using humour to dissect and undermine the Nazi regime, though they do so through markedly different scenes and techniques. Lubitsch’s elegance shines in scenes where subtle gestures and dialogues deliver a biting critique, such as the infamous “Heil Hitler” greeting, turned on its head to expose the illogicality of blind allegiance. Brooks, conversely, opts for more direct confrontation, using overtly comedic setups, like the scene where Brooks’s character, dressed as Hitler, interacts with the Nazi soldiers, pushing absurdity to its limits to underscore the same point: the grotesque ignorance of the regime.

In today’s global climate, with its plethora of platforms for satire and political comedy, both films deserve to find their place and be appreciated. Modern audiences, seasoned by a barrage of information and diverse comedic content, might appreciate Brooks’s approach for its boldness and clarity, while also respecting Lubitsch’s subtlety as well as recognizing the courage it took to craft such a film in the middle of the second world war when victory against the Nazis was far from certain. Both films serve as valuable texts, offering lessons in the power of laughter as both a weapon and a comfort in the darkest of times.

Personal preferences between Lubitsch’s subtlety and Brooks’s directness might vary, but there’s an undeniable genius in both approaches. Lubitsch’s work is a masterclass in the art of understatement, where the gravity of the context is magnified by the lightness of its touch. Brooks, on the other hand, embodies the spirit of comedy as defiance, using laughter as a loud refusal to submit to the darkness of history. In the end, the preference might not just be a matter of taste but of temperament: Do we whisper defiance or shout it from the rooftops?

The critical journey of “To Be or Not to Be,” from Lubitsch to Brooks, encapsulates the transformative power of comedy over time. While their methods diverge, their mission converges: to remind us that even in our darkest hours, laughter is not just important, it’s essential.

To Be Or Not To Be Review
Score 8/10
To Be Or Not To Be Review
Score 7/10

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