Jewish groups are split on "Mein Führer," Germany's first home-grown comedy film about the former dictator. Critics debated the wisdom of portraying Hitler as a buffoon -- and the difficulty of making him funny.
Courting controversy: Director Dani Levy stands between the film's stars at the premiere
Is Dani Levy's Hitler comedy "Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler" just a further development in a long tradition of satirical 'Jewish' humor? Or is it a tasteless, belittling, and ultimately dangerous attempt to approach a subject best left to historians?
The answers vary. The movie, which opens to nationwide release on Thursday, has been criticized by many Jewish leaders in Germany and Switzerland. Many think he idea of a German film sending up Hitler is unconscionable and breaks a taboo better left in place.
But others, noting numerous trailblazing films from Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" through Roberto Begnini's "Life is Beautiful," said there was no reason Germans, too, could not look at the dictator, who, it can be argued, has many rather ridiculous qualities, through the lens of laughter.
Levy: making a name as a voice of Jewish film in Germany
"'Mein Führer' lies in a well-established tradition of Jewish comedy, from Mel Brooks through Ernst Lubitsch through Seinfeld," said Yves Kugelmann, editor in chief of Aufbau, a Switzerland-based monthly German-language magazine about Jewish culture.
Hitler as 'pop figure'
"The fact that a comedy about Hitler can be made in Germany can be seen as very positive," Kugelmann said. "It is absolutely correct and absolutely important to make movies like this. You could call it a sign of emancipation."
In theory, he said, a comedy about Hitler is an improvement on the steady flow of gravely serious programs -- often detailing specific aspects Hitler's life and those of his Nazi cohorts -- that regularly feature on German television.
Even the sets for scenes on Berlin streets sparked controversy during filming
"Those documentaries -- on Hitler's dogs, his women, his impotency -- they all serve to make him into a monumental pop figure," he said. "This is problematic because they lead to the cult of a person."
While noting that "anyone who sees this film and hasn't read Anne Frank has a problem," Kugelmann said that depicting Hitler in a comedy "could be the only way to come to terms with reality."
"It raises the question of Hitler's success in the greater society," he said. "It shows him in his surroundings, among those who followed him and those who simply didn't oppose him. It asks them, 'How did you get there?'"
Indeed, Kugelmann's biggest cricitism of the movie was that it failed to make the most of the opportunity.
"It was provocative, sure, but it didn't go far enough into satire. I think Levy lost his nerve and took a moralistic stance," he said
He noted that other films based on the same subject -- like Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" and Begnini's "Life Is Beautiful" -- were more daring, and more successful.
Kugelmann was not the only person to compare the film to "The Great Dictator." Lea Rosh, the outspoken German publicist best known for her successful campaign to build a Holocaust memorial in the center of Berlin, told the Lübecker Nachrichten newspaper: "I don’t think it's possible to make Hitler a comic figure, unless you are a genius like Charlie Chaplin."
Hitler: no thigh-slapper
Levy -- whose Jewish mother was smuggled from Germany into Switzerland at age 12 -- has called his film "primal scream therapy." He has said he thinks Germans are ready to laugh about the "pathetic, pitiable and ridiculous" figure of Adolf Hitler. In his attempt to give Germans "new images," he lampoons the dictator as an impotent bed wetter who had a traumatic childhood.
Meanwhile, shortly before the film opened, Stephan J. Kramer, the general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, roundly criticized the film and Levy's attempt to demystify Hitler.
Hitler is portrayed as a pathetic oddball who plays with battleships in his bubble bath
Laughing over a Hitler is "neither taboo nor forbidden," he said. But he pointed out that Hitler satires by Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch and Mel Brooks, with their "subtle, ironic and sarcastic humor," had little to do with Levy's "broad, thigh-slapping" comedy style.
More importantly, those films were not made in Germany, "and probably for good reason, because Germany is the home of the Holocaust," he said.
"Hitler was not just a humorous figure with a tragic childhood ... he doesn't deserve any mitigating circumstances or pity. The mass murder of millions of people in Europe can't be separated from Hitler's own person," Kramer said.
"Given the growing anti-Semitism in Europe, the film 'Mein Führer' is unnecessary and even dangerous," he added.
It is unclear whether German audiences are ready for, or even interested in the move. A Forsa research group for Stern magazine showed 56 percent of those asked were opposed to the film, while 35 percent viewed it positively.