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Hitler, funny? It's a new approach

The German `Mein Fuehrer' is the latest taboo-breaking film about the Nazi leader and World War II.

January 03, 2007|Geir Moulson | Associated Press

BERLIN — Coming soon to German cinemas: a demoralized, drug-addled Adolf Hitler who plays with a toy battleship in the bathtub, dresses his dog in Nazi uniform and takes acting tips from a Jewish concentration camp inmate.

The movie opening Jan. 11 is treading ground that once would have been off-limits. This is not Mel Brooks' "The Producers" or Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," but a German movie that dares to treat Hitler as comedy.

"Mein Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler" follows the Oscar-nominated "Downfall," the 2004 German film that broke new ground in portraying Hitler from a German perspective -- offering a controversially intimate and lifelike portrait of his last days.

"Mein Fuehrer" director Dani Levy, a Swiss-born Jew who lives in Berlin, says he has long felt the need to explain for himself how it was possible for Germans to follow Hitler, ultimately dragging the nation into war and the Holocaust.

"I had the feeling that I must do it with another genre, do it by being able to exaggerate through comedy," Levy said in an interview.

Levy's plot starts in December 1944, with Berlin in ruins and Hitler too depressed to deliver a much-awaited speech to rally his people.

His propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, finds a solution in Adolf Gruenbaum, a fictional Jewish actor who coached Hitler at the beginning of his career and is now in a concentration camp. "We need someone who can ignite our Fuehrer's greatest strength -- and that strength is his hatred," Goebbels explains.

Gruenbaum uses the mission to try to kill Hitler, but fails. So he puts Hitler through humiliating exercises, such as crawling about barking like a dog. The farce broadens when Hitler's barber accidentally shaves off half his mustache; the enraged dictator shouts himself hoarse and Gruenbaum has to lip-sync the big speech, but deviates from the script to make Hitler look even sillier.

All this would have been unthinkable a decade ago, when Germans were engrossed in "a very serious appraisal of Nazism" and how to commemorate its victims, said Paul Nolte, a professor of contemporary history at Berlin's Free University.

Today they find it "easier to go beyond that and enter other genres," he said.

Meanwhile, the German public's distance from the events has grown as the World War II generation dwindles.

Levy, 49, points to Italian Roberto Benigni's Oscar-winning "Life Is Beautiful" of 1997 as a taboo-breaking forerunner, about a father who uses desperate and hilarious means to shield his son from the horrors of a Nazi death camp and convince him it is all an elaborate game.

"I think it is important that we create new pictures of our own, also of the Holocaust or Nazism, and not always work off the old, realistic pictures, because I think that just makes us lazy and tired, and we don't learn anything from it," Levy said.

"Downfall" divided critics, with some questioning whether Hitler should be given a human portrayal and objecting that it glossed over the broader historical context, including the Holocaust.

The critics haven't yet commented on "Mein Fuehrer," but the weekly Der Spiegel says the new wave of films about Hitler is demonstrating "a need to break the myth down to a normal human ... that makes him more everyday, perhaps easier to understand, in any case smaller."

"The ultimate way to shrink a myth is to make it laughable," it added.

At the same time, Germans have experienced, perhaps for the first time since before the war, the full force of national pride, engendered by their successful staging of the soccer World Cup last summer.

"Mein Ball," a musical staged in Hamburg last year, even managed to marry the disparate themes by imagining Hitler trying to save Germany by staging the World Cup.

The film version of the Broadway staging of "The Producers," with its signature song "Springtime for Hitler," screened in German cinemas last spring without creating any major stir.

In a related sign of changing attitudes, it also was a huge stage hit in Israel, home to tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors, with few complaints of bad taste.

Levy has already had a hit in Germany with "Go for Zucker," a lighthearted look at Jewish life in a Germany amid the east-west divisions that still fester from the Cold War. No plans have been announced for airing "Mein Fuehrer" in the United States, but Levy is optimistic that his film will find a market outside Germany.

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