Posted by: kenwbudd | December 9, 2009

Germany: Springtime for Hitler comedy, To Be or not?

Should Germans laugh about Adolf Hitler? The Deutsche Theater in Berlin last week gave its own “Yes” answer by staging a theatrical version of “To Be or Not To Be,” Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 cult movie that satirizes Germany’s takeover of Poland.

The play centers on a group of theater actors in Poland who drop their SS play for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in order not to provoke Nazi Germany, which nevertheless overruns the country.

In the ensuing months, famed actress Maria Tura and her husband, the egocentric theater star Josef Tura, become entangled in an outrageous spy plot that pulls the ensemble together one last time for a final play to save their lives and their country: Relying on their old SS costumes and their acting qualities, they stage an SS parade and in the end even produce a naked Hitler to intimidate a local Nazi brute, and to fly off into freedom.

The Lubitsch film is now an all-time classic, but it took years until it was really respected. When it was unveiled in 1942, at a time when it felt like Hitler might prevail in Europe, the movie was thrashed.

“To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case,” The New York Times scathed, and Life asked how “Hollywood could convert part of a world crisis into such a cops-and-robbers charade.”

The Deutsche Theater interpretation, stuffed with Nazi memorabilia (usually illegal to display here in Germany) such as swastikas, Fuhrer paintings and a blow-up Reichsadler, did not raise eyebrows. That had been done by the Mel Brooks-authored musical “The Producers,” which opened at the nearby Admiralspalast — where Hitler once had his own VIP box — earlier this year to rave reviews and considerable controversy.

The German press had extensively discussed whether Germans could and should laugh at Brooks’ play without guilt. In Berlin, this discussion became especially meaning-laden.

The city’s buildings still bear the scars of World War II in the form of bullet holes. From here, the real Hitler plotted a war and atrocities that killed 20 million people. The Nazi era still burdens Germans with a sense of collective guilt. While Hitler may be dead, neo-Nazism isn’t.

Germany saw an upshot of far-right extremism in the 1990s, with hoards of bald-headed neo-Nazis torching asylum homes and clashing with German police. The democratic reaction was swift: Hundreds of thousands of Germans marched peacefully against xenophobia and neo-Nazism.

Over the past years, a series of plays and films have taken World War II as a subject, with “The Downfall” dramatizing Hitler’s last days in the bunker. So the stage seemed set for “The Producers,” which was a success. Laughing at Hitler seemed to be a liberating experience for Germans, and they did so many times at the second premiere of “To Be or Not to Be.”

It was a pleasure to watch the slapstick talents of Bernd Moss, as Joseph Tura, and of Ingo Huelsmann, as his villain-counterpart Professor Silewski, who is trying to rat the entire Polish resistance only to be denied by the actors. Joerg Gudzuhn gives off a ridiculous Bavarian SS brute, and Juergen Huth a frighteningly real-looking Hitler — heaven thanks that he loses his pants in the end.

Critics from Berlin-based newspapers thrashed the play because they said it offered nothing substantial beyond the film, and that the many comical scenes didn’t reach below the surface. That might be true, but sometimes, it’s not necessary to laden a play with extra meaning. Instead, why not take it what can be — and is two hours of fun.

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