I'd never seen Mel Brooks' To Be or Not To Be before last night. I think there's a trailer for it on my DVD of Twelve Chairs, but that's as close as I'd gotten. Until it came on and my dad mentioned it, I didn't know there was a much earlier version with Carole Lombard and Jack Benny, but that will have to wait for some other day.
You have a Polish theater company, where the two main actors are the Bronskis, Frederick and Anna (Brooks and Anne Bancroft). But Anna has begun an affair with a Polish pilot (played by Tim Matheson), which they carry on when Frederick is doing the Hamlet soliloquy that gives the film its name. Frederick doesn't know that's happening, just that this one rude solider keeps getting up during his favorite scene.
Then the Nazis invade Poland. The lieutenant made it to England to join a Polish squadron there. He meets a doctor who claims to be headed to Poland on a secret mission, and collects information on all the pilots' loved ones back home, but is actually working for the Gestapo. So the lieutenant somehow sneaks all the back to Warsaw to enlist Anna is trying to steal the list of names. Which drags Frederick in, and things just keep escalating.
Charles Durning as the Gestapo Colonel, with Christopher Lloyd as his extremely dour (and none-too-bright) Captain were pretty good, though I had a bit of trouble figuring out how Durning's character made it that far up the ladder in the Gestapo. He's very Colonel Klink from Hogan's Heroes. I assume Frederick was actually terrible at Shakespeare, but hell if I can tell. He was a lot better when he did that musical number about loving ladies, though.
One thing Brooks does well in his films is hit you with those unexpected serious moments (when he feels like it). There's a moment where Anna's assistant Sasha reveals the Nazis are making homosexuals wearing pink symbols on their coats. He tries to play it off as no big deal, then pauses with his back turned, only to spin look right at us at state, 'I hate it.' It's just one of those times where there's no joke, and it works all the better because everything else is a joke.
I do wonder about portraying the Nazis as bumbling clowns. They're still shown as being dangerous, but it's almost like they're too dumb to recognize or care about the harm they're causing. But they're so easy to outwit, at least in part because they've bought so completely into this ideology and the man who embodies it they just follow orders. Even if the orders contradict past orders, even if the order comes from Mel Brooks dressed up like Hitler, because he speaks with authority and has the right uniform. So maybe the lesson is more about watching out for that kind of thinking, regardless of the particular shape it takes, and to point out that it isn't strong, but actually foolish.