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TV Reviews : 'Genghis Cohn' Risky but Funny

November 05, 1994|RAY LOYND

"Genghis Cohn" is a TV original--an audacious, eyebrow-raising comedy about tragedy.

Risky but funny, this Holocaust-inspired curiosity about a Nazi who turns into a postwar Jew is a bountiful mix of high purpose and stylish frivolity. Its black humor throws German guilt and the redemptive power of memory into unexpected, sensitive light.

In a bizarre prologue set in 1930s Germany, the title character (the sad, grinning Antony Sher) is a Jewish ventriloquist with a nightclub act featuring Hitler as his strident dummy in scenes that could be straight out of "Cabaret."

Of course, the ventriloquist's days are numbered. We last see him alive in a concentration camp facing his executioner over an open pit. Suddenly he wheels about, bullets tearing into his chest, and screams "Kiss my ass!" in Hebrew.

An A&E-BBC production shot in Bavaria, the ensuing plot jumps ahead to Germany in 1958. The chickens have come home to roost as the cajoling, avenging ghost of the Jew returns to torment and pester a flustered former Nazi (Robert Lindsay). The latter is now a pillar of the community, a police commissioner trying to bury his Gestapo past while comically hunting down a serial killer.

Some viewers may be offended by the material's humorous approach to anti-Semitism. For instance, under the influence of Cohn's ghost, the ex-Nazi is slowly transformed into a Jew who even looks like Hitler and becomes a voracious fan of chopped liver and "The Diary of Anne Frank."

But the conclusion drops its sly mask and abruptly shifts to a grim tone.

Based on the novel "The Dance of Genghis Cohn," by Romaine Gary, the production is smartly adapted (by Stanley Price), cleverly directed (by Elijah Moshinsky) and inventively acted--including a ripe performance by Diana Rigg as a lustful German baroness who yearns for the war's good ol' days.

* "Genghis Cohn" airs at 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Sunday on A&E.

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