Director Ernst Lubitsch brings his renowned sophistication and wit, called the "Lubitsch Touch," to this wartime comedy about side-by-side bravery and brutality during World War II. The underlying message is that evil is out there and we all have a duty to fight it. To Be or Not to Be reminds us that petty jealousies and matters of ego must be abandoned at times of crisis, and that the arts can play an important role in helping us understand and fight oppression and unfairness. The movie pleads for empathy, understanding, and tolerance of differences. An actor recites lines from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice: "If you cut me do I not bleed?" The sentiments are as relevant for when Nazis were killing Jews and other "undesirables" as for today, when "others" continue to be targeted for prejudicial treatment.
The movie can seem a bit jokey. A man, Jewish but not identified as such, tells an over-the-top actor, "What you are, I wouldn't eat." Ham, of course, isn't kosher. Lombard gleefully delivers some of the film's best lines. In a proto-feminist moment, Maria complains that her husband takes up all the air in the room. "If I go on a diet, you lose the weight. If we ever had a baby, I'm not so sure I'd be the mother." Trying to charm her way out of agreeing to spy for a flirtatious gestapo colonel (Sig Ruman), she pretends to be considering his offer, then responds with a smile, "But what are we going to do about my conscience?" The movie was released two months after Lombard died in a plane crash raising money to support the American war effort.