Progress Report provides ongoing impressions of serials or sets I view them.
Not having seen the original film, directed by Ernst Lubitsch during the middle of World War II, I didn't have much to compare Mel Brooks' remake of To Be or Not to Be to when I viewed it recently. What I found was a surprising balance of comedy and drama and a film that, while restrained, remains quite entertaining.
The story, following the original closely, involves a Polish theatrical company, led by Frederick (Mel Brooks) and Anna (Anne Bancroft) Bronski, the headlining stars. When Germany invades Poland during World War II, the Bronskis continue to run their theater company but get mixed up with the Polish resistance when Lt. Andre Sobinski (Tim Matheson), who had previously attempted a liaison with a willing Anna shows up and needs their help in order to prevent the Gestapo from receiving a list of the Polish underground resistance.
From what I've read, the film actually stays really close to the original, so credit to the original for putting together a film that has plenty of dramatic tension, interesting complex characters and a whole lot of laughs at the same time. Some things that were changed includes adding in the stories of the persecuted Jews and homosexuals (and gypsies in passing), much of which just couldn't be shown so close to wartime for one reason or another (lack of information, social taboo, etc.) as well as some changes to some characters and scenes. But, it all works pretty well, although the beginning is a little rough. And I have to say that I love the "Naughty Nazis" musical number at the beginning. But it's great how well woven the script is together so that different plot elements allow these actors to be heroes of sorts. The protagonists are dynamic and funny and even most of the villains are quite amusing. I found the flustered rapport between the soft-minded Colonel Eirhart (Charles Durning) and his beleaguered Captain Schultz (Christopher Lloyd) to be laugh inducing. I did have my brain logic-checking at times because sometimes the story really pushed past the boundary of plausibility, even despite its comedy genre, but I could mostly let that go because of how enjoyable the whole affair was.
One thing that you immediately can tell about this film is that it's not directed or written by Brooks, even as it's produced by him. The film has a kind of smoothness as well as restraint that really benefits to telling the characters' stories and while it doesn't amp up the gags and verbal comedy like Brooks' wacky high energy style does, it complements the story that needed to be told well. Performances are pretty solid across the board and it looks like the actors really enjoyed hamming it up as hammy actors with Brooks perhaps giving one of his most pathos-laden performances in a comedy. The art team does a good job of putting together the look of the film as well and the music, especially the musical numbers are fun. The opening scene is a musical number actually done in Polish along with some dialog thereafter. And, to be honest, I probably would've enjoyed the whole thing in Polish, but they decided to break the fourth wall and have some omniscient voice announce that the film would thereafter be in English. A Brooksish gag, but the only one that was particularly off kilter.
I don't know how necessary this remake was because the original film is so well regarded and appreciated. But, even if it's not a necessary film, it is still quite enjoyable from start to finish and from it, we get to see the range of Brooks as a comedic actor. It might not be a classic like the original, but I thought it was darn good time and quite possibly more enjoyable that a number of Brooks' own films since Young Frankenstein, even if it's not super original. Because the original is so well regarded, I'd say that it would probably be the one I recommend to watch, but the Brooks take on this film is plenty good as well. 7/10.