They sing, they dance, they conquer France! Stormtroopers and a simpering, silly Hitler take the stage in the Berlin production of musical comedy "The Producers". Is Germany ready to laugh at its own taboos?
A simpering, silly Hitler is the centerpiece of "The Producers'" flop turned satiric hit
Andreas Bieber, one of the stars of the new production at Berlin's Admiralspalast theatre, wants one thing to be clear: "People think it's a musical about Hitler – of course that's not the case."
But that notorious name is part of what is raising eyebrows over the show, which has goose-stepping as well as tap-dancing, and mines taboos for comic effect.
"The Producers" tells the story of two theatrical ne'er do wells, lecherous has-been Max Bialystock, and wimpy wannabe Leopold Bloom, who discover that flops can make more money than hits. They set out to produce the loser of all losers – a musical about Hitler, written by and starring a demented neo-Nazi, and directed by a flamboyant gay director, which is "certain to offend people of all races, creeds and religions, and guaranteed to close in one night."
Surprisingly, when the manic but macho lead is replaced with a campy, outrageous performance by the director, the fascist frolic is taken for brilliant satire. "Springtime for Hitler" becomes a smash hit, and the producers end up in jail for defrauding their backers.
Singing, dancing Nazis storm the stage in "The Producers"
American comedy icon Mel Brooks' original 1968 movie sparked a Tony-award winning 2001 Broadway show, which in turn was made into a 2005 musical film. Audiences in London, Tokyo, Athens and even Tel Aviv have all fallen for the crazy comedy. But a German-language version was lacking until last summer's production in Vienna, Austria.
A love letter to a lost culture, or a risky joke?
The production is now on stage in Berlin. Titus Hoffmann, resident director at the Admiralspalast for the production of "The Producers", calls the show a love letter to show business, including an entertainment culture that once thrived in the German capital.
"There was a huge cabaret scene, lots of satirical, ironic, funny people, that were killed in the Third Reich then, or they had to leave and they went to America and a lot of those people went to New York and worked on Broadway.
"And somehow, it feels a bit like it's a return, and it brings the humor back to the country, which is so great. Because apart from all the awful and terrible things that happened through Hitler, what still is lacking a little in Germany is good humor."
Controversial banners announce the German premier of the musical "The Producers"
So far, not everyone here is getting the joke. Local papers have described the show as "risky" and even the production's advertising has caused a fuss. It's illegal to portray the swastika publicly in Germany, so the casually reclining Hitler in poster ads for the play wears an armband displaying a pretzel. Banners showing the doughy treat in black on a red and white banner have been hanging in the theatre courtyard for months. They've garnered double-takes from passersby, and a few complaints to the police. The storm troopers wear the real thing when they take the stage, though, due to a theatrical exception.
Equal opportunity offender
In some ways, Brooks' classic can be seen as an equal opportunity offender, with jokes about gays, Jews, dumb blondes and sex-crazed little old ladies. The humor at times relies on pratfalls and slapstick. The song lyrics are especially clever jabs, rhyming Nazi with "hotsy-totsy" and declaring, "We're marching to a faster pace. Look out, here comes the master race!"
Some of the biggest laughs at Friday night's preview show came thanks to nutty neo-Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, who wears Lederhosen and a German military helmet, and has a flock of Teutonic-titled pigeons. He insists that the two producers join him in wearing a swastika armband and taking an oath in the name of "Adolph Elizabeth Hitler." Max Bialystock grabs the red band, turns it this way and that, and describes it as "idiot proof" since the symbol looks the same from either direction – the audience exploded with delighted guffaws.
"It's not OK to make fun of the Holocaust. But Hitler as a person, is OK to ridicule."
Still there's a slight uneasiness that comes from seeing one-armed salutes in a city with such a tortured history, agrees Nigel West, the production's director.
"When you see the show in America, you don't think twice about it. Because of where we are, you do think twice about it…Of course there's a large age group that could still be affected by what went on, but people hopefully below the age of 60 will come and they'll forgive and they'll go with it."
Actor Martin Sommerlatte plays Adolf Hitler in the musical "The Producers"
34-year-old Sven Schmidt lived up to West's hopes – although surprised by some of the scenes, Schmidt said he laughed a lot, and his only complaint was that the second half lagged a little.
"It's another generation. We don't have that much to do with it anymore," Schmidt said.
"This was a parody of Hitler, so it's OK to laugh. Other things, it might not be OK to laugh at. It's not OK to make fun of the Holocaust. But Hitler as a person is OK to ridicule".
Actor Andreas Bieber thinks Berlin is the perfect place for Brooks' hit. He hopes audiences will come to the performance knowing what the show is about, and ready to let themselves enjoy it.
"Berlin of course is the city where it all happened. And everybody's reminded about that all the time. It's really not about denying history and what happened, but we have to move on, and we have to look at things from a different angle, and it's great to do that in the city where it all happened."
Previews of "The Producers" take place this weekend, with the official premier of the musical Sunday evening. The production is currently booked for a two and a half month run. Response in Vienna was muted, with the scheduled run of a year cut to 10 months. But the cast and crew hope that in Berlin, the show will go on -- and on.
Author: Susan Stone
Editor: Andreas Illmer