How will it play in Berlin?
That was the question on everyone’s lips when the curtain went up for “The Producers — Fruehling fuer Hitler (Springtime for Hitler),” Mel Brooks‘ no-holds-barred musical spoof of the Third Reich.
The sell-out crowd’s thunderous standing ovation at the Admiralspalast, led by Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, cheering from the red velvet box built for Adolf Hitler. The Teuton premiere on May 17 helped wipe away pre-opening angst that laughing about Hitler would be too painful — and fears that the musical farce about a Nazi flop on stage might end up being a real-life flop.
Even though the Broadway musical, created in 2001 from Brooks’ 1968 movie, grossed more than $1 billion worldwide, its only German-language rendition had been in Vienna, where the farce had a so-so run and its year-long engagement was cut short.
There was widespread nervousness about how Berlin would react to taboo-shattering jokes about Nazis and Jews, and local police were even called in by considered citizens to examine the bright red Nazi look-alike banners hanging from the theater before the opening. It is against the law in Germany to display Nazi paraphernalia, the only exemption being for theatrical purposes.
“I really don’t think anyone can be offended or hurt by this musical,” Wowereit told Variety at the theater located just a few blocks away from Hitler’s bunker. “There was a lot of talk and some worries beforehand, but anyone who comes to see this or takes a closer look at what it’s all about understands that it’s just satire. It’s just entertainment and no one should think for a second it has anything to do with glossing over the Nazis or glorifying their crimes. This is allowable and I think the people understand that.”
The laughter was punctuated by a gasp or two, such as when racing pigeons gave the stiff-armed Hitler salute and Nazi storm troopers goose-stepped across the stage. The celebrity-filled Berlin audience clearly enjoyed the show about the two unscrupulous producers who hire the worst director and actors in town for an utterly tasteless play about Hitler’s romantic side, only to see the show turn into a fantastic success.
“Every step like this that goes toward a more liberated or more courageous dealing with the whole past is good,” says Dani Levy, the Swiss helmer whose own films have taken a satirical take on Hitler (“My Fuhrer — The Truly Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler”). “It hurts sometimes, even for me it hurts, seeing people laugh about something that’s so cruel. Sometimes I feel like it’s crazy that you can laugh and you feel a real shame. There’s a kind of blocked laughter to it all.”
Even though the vast majority of Germany’s population was born after 1945, it has long been out of bounds to mix the Nazis and humor. But director Andreas Dresen says, “I don’t think it’s a question of ‘whether one should be allowed to laugh about Hitler.’ I think you have to be able to laugh about Hitler.”