Laughing About Hitler All the Way to the Bank
Jews are known to poke fun at themselves and at their worst enemies alike. But for some of his co-religionists, movie director Dani Levy’s last joke went too far.
His comedy about Adolf Hitler earned negative reviews in the German-speaking media, and generated indignation among Jewish community leaders and some well-known intellectuals. The result was predictable: A mediocre movie that should have been ignored by most moviegoers became a controversial must-see film, and “Mein Führer: The Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler” turned into a blockbuster at German movie theaters.
Perhaps any comedy that depicts Hitler as wetting his bed and barking like a dog, as “Mein Führer” does, would attract the crowds. Moreover, Germans love to read and hear about the political monster that seduced their forefathers and led them and most of Europe into ruin.
But Levy’s movie might not have attracted such large audiences had it not been mired in controversy even before its public release. Just as the angry denunciations by American Jewish groups helped to make Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” one of the highest-grossing independent movies of all time, their German peers turned “Mein Führer” from a cinematic event into a political one.
“The movie is superficial, superfluous and even dangerous,” Stephan Kramer, secretary general of the Central Council of Jews, wrote in the German weekly Die Zeit. “In light of the fact that the Nazis killed millions of people, I can’t laugh about it.” And Lea Rosh, the publicist who lobbied for the construction of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, demanded “a little respect” for Hitler’s victims.
These critics all miss a crucial point: The question of whether Hitler and the Holocaust are fair game for laughs and comedy has long been settled. Charlie Chaplin made sure of that with “The Great Dictator” in 1940, as did Ernst Lubitsch with “To Be or Not To Be,” whose hilarious plot even survived a Mel Brooks remake. Brooks’s “The Producers” is at least as irreverent as Levy’s movie, and Italian actor-director Robert Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” dared to turn life and death in a concentration camp into a bittersweet farce.
So why all the fuss about “Mein Führer”? Perhaps it’s because it is a German production (even though the filmmaker is a Swiss-born Jew). Two years ago, the melodrama “Downfall” by German producer Bernd Eichinger was criticized by some for showing Hitler as a human being who occasionally had tender thoughts, but its worldwide commercial success seems to have closed that debate.
Levy’s film is an easier target because it is not very good. The story of Adolf Grünbaum, a Jewish acting teacher who is called in from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp by Joseph Goebbels so that he can help prepare a demoralized Hitler for his 1945 New Year’s speech has some excellent acting, clever lines and funny moments. Moreover, Levy’s absurd story reflects a deeper historical truth: In late 1944, Hitler was a broken man surrounded by scheming and sycophantic aides.
But the movie ultimately fails because it is not funny enough. It loses its pace in particular through the depiction of Grünbaum’s unbearably noble family that comes to live with him in the Reich Chancellory in Berlin.
Levy had originally planned to focus on the Nazis and tell the story through Hitler, who in the script survives the war and is plotting his return to power. But after an unsettling test screening, Levy apparently got cold feet. To make sure that no one would accuse him of trivializing the Third Reich or of making fun of victims’ sufferings, he turned his hard-edged comedy into a morality tale narrated by a Jewish hero.
His efforts did not silence the critics. They did, however, succeed in killing the spirit of the movie.
One can be sure that satires and comedies about the Third Reich and its main protagonist will continue to hit the movie theaters. There is something inherently funny about the way Hitler, unlike other 20th-century monsters, looked, spoke and lived. Neither Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein has much to offer in terms of humor.
The next comedy about the Nazis might just be even more tasteless and shameless than Levy’s film. It might even be made by — gasp — a German filmmaker without Jewish roots.
But as much as such a movie might upset Jews and non-Jews alike, Jewish communal officials would do well to remember that the more of a stink they raise about these kinds of films, the more they guarantee the commercial success of the very works they’re trying to stop.
Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.