Released in 1942, and set in German-occupied Poland, To Be or Not to Be tells the story of a troupe of actors who use their theatrical talents to foil a Nazi attempt to unravel the Polish resistance. The film’s director, Ernst Lubitsch, was himself a German-born Jew actively involved in raising money to help his coreligionists fleeing Europe to resettle in the U.S. Although the plight of Polish Jewry is secondary to the movie’s plot, it is, according to Thomas Doherty, the subject of one of its most powerful scenes:
Title notwithstanding, the best-remembered soliloquy in the film is not from Hamlet but from The Merchant of Venice. In a plot machination too convoluted to recap, the perennially second-billed Felix Bressart [playing a bit-player from the troupe named Greenberg]—a Jewish character actor and Lubitsch stock-company regular—is given his moment in the spotlight, reciting the anguished monologue from the role he was born to play, Shylock. “Have we not eyes? Have we not hands, organs, senses, dimensions, attachments, passions?” he asks the Nazis, who are mesmerized despite themselves. (The post-Holocaust spectator will be especially spooked by the accusation: “If you poison us, do we not die?”)
Spoken against a backdrop of Nazi uniforms, helmets, and swastikas, Bressart’s performance is transfixing. He seems to know already that wartime Hollywood cinema will never produce a more eloquent plea for religious tolerance than the one written in the 1590s.
Curiously, though, Bressart does not speak the trigger word that in Shakespeare launches the litany of rhetorical questions, [beginning with] “Hath not a Jew eyes?” Still radioactive, the word Jew was seldom heard on the Hollywood screen, even in war-minded scenarios where the topic of anti-Semitism was front and center. In The Mortal Storm (1940), for example, the Jewish professor murdered by the Nazis is never named as such—only called a “non-Aryan” with the letter “J” printed on his concentration-camp uniform. . . .
Fortunately, elsewhere in To Be or Not to Be the Jewish elements are hardly hidden between the lines. Is Hitler “by any chance interested in Mr. Maslowski’s delicatessen?” teases the narrator in the opening vignette. “That’s impossible—he’s a vegetarian!”