Is it really all right for Germans to laugh about Hitler and Nazi Germany? Director Dani Levy's "Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler" tests the limits.
Hitler appears as an absurd and pathetic figure in Levy's film
A new film comedy about Hitler is starting in German cinemas this week. "Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler" has unleashed a storm of media interest.
More than 60 years after Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" appeared in cinemas, this is the first humorous film production about the Nazi leader to be made in Germany. The question everyone is asking is whether it is actually acceptable to laugh about Hitler and the Nazis -- especially if you are German.
In the film, Hitler is a physical wreck who has been psychologically damaged by his authoritarian upbringing and is an impotent, bed-wetting, whimpering drug addict. He plays with a toy battleship in his bath and trains his beloved German shepherd dog Blondi, dressed in a mini SS uniform, to perform the Nazi salute.
An absurd figure
The crimes of the Nazis make laughing about Hitler out of bounds for many Germans
"The figure of Adolf Hitler was a pathetic figure and also pitiable and ridiculous," said Levy. "Just like Nazism as a whole. If you think that a whole nation used to shout 'Heil Hitler,' that is cabaret of the most profound kind."
Levy, however, also said he realizes the crimes of the Nazi regime could make laughing at his film's satire difficult for some.
"It would have been funny and people would have been able to laugh about the whole thing over the last few years if the Nazis had not done what they did," he said. "If this endless destruction, the biggest crime against humanity that there has ever been, had not happened."
"Mein Führer" is set in the final weeks of 1944 when Germany was clearly losing the war and shows Hitler on the verge of a nervous breakdown while propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels decides to appoint a linguistic coach to help the dictator prepare to give a morale-boosting speech to the people.
A Jewish actor, the fictional Adolf Grünbaum, is released from a concentration camp to do the job and puts Hitler through a series of exercises. Most of the film's humor arises during these training sessions -- for example the slapstick scene when the dictator gets knocked out during a boxing match or ends up crawling around on the floor barking like a dog.
Close to the bone
The film Downfall also portrayed Hitler in a 'human" manner
But there are also a number of exaggerated, part comic, part demonic performances from the coterie of figures who surround Hitler, such as Goebbels and SS-leader Heinrich Himmler, Hitler's architect Albert Speer and mistress Eva Braun. Some of the comedy goes pretty close to the bone, for example when Goebbels tells Grünbaum that he should not take the Final Solution personally.
In recent years in Germany there has been a controversial move away from a simple deionization of the figure of Hitler. The director of the taboo-busting Oscar-nominated 2004 film "Downfall" created an intentionally human portrayal of Hitler, reaping criticism along the way.
Counting on Germans' sense of humor
Levy is entering new territory in Germany with this comedy
Dani Levy, Swiss-born Jewish director, has also said his film aims to remove the figure of Hitler from its pedestal. His film, too, has already received both brickbats and bouquets. But it adopts a very different approach from the serious "Downfall." Levy said he is confident that the comedy will be successful.
"I'm trusting that the Germans have more humor than they are credited with -- otherwise I would be lost as a Jewish filmmaker with a Jewish comedy about Hitler," he said. "I think that, as is frequently the case at this time, that there is a feeling under the surface that there is a need to laugh about things that up to now had been exclusively consigned to seriousness."