BERLIN (JTA) — Can a Jewish filmmaker in Germany turn the Nazi dictator into a joke without trivializing him?
Dani Levy says yes; others aren’t so sure.
Levy’s new film, “Mein Fuhrer: The Truly Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler,” has received cool reviews across Germany, but theaters reportedly were full on its Jan. 11 opening day.
Levy, 49, said he had expected a “tsunami” of criticism. Even his mother, who escaped Nazi Germany as a child, warned him not to come running if things went badly.
Now he’s on the defensive against some who think the film goes too far and those who say it doesn’t go far enough.
“On this mass grave where I find myself, the film is already quite courageous enough,” he told the German public television station WDR on Jan. 11.
The film created a stir even before it opened with big red posters featuring that unmistakable brow with sideswept forelock. Coming soon to a theater near you.
Levy says he’s not trying to make light of the man responsible for the destruction of European Jewry.
The Swiss-born director depicts Hitler as a broken, pitiable figure who hires a Jewish actor to help him regain his political and sexual potency. The low-budget film was done in 30 days with funding from German public TV corporations WDR, Arte, BR and others after Levy won Germany’s top film prize in 2005 for his comedy “Go For Zucker.”
“Mein Fuhrer” features Ulrich Muhe as the fictional Jewish actor Adolf Gruenbaum and Helge Schneider as Hitler. The film sometimes falls flat but does have some hilarious moments.
In a kind of revenge of humiliation, Levy has Hitler on all fours barking like a dog; in the bath raising his arm in a Hitler salute; wetting his bed; and trying unsuccessfully to bed his fraulein.
All together, Hitler comes off as a sad buffoon. The Jewish hero and his family are saved — another far-fetched depiction that flies in the face of reality.
But Levy was not going for reality.
Pedagogic films “pretend they are telling the real truth,” and the public is “supposed to swallow it,” he told JTA. “ ‘Mein Fuehrer’ is actually the other way around. I’m trying to make people insecure, to provoke questions, so people will be thinking. I don’t want to feed them with something called reality.”
Not everyone is ready for this. A survey for Stern magazine of 1,005 Germans found that only 35 percent of respondents liked the idea, with 9 percent undecided.
In the Jewish community, Dieter Graumann was among the detractors. A vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Graumann told reporters that it pained him — especially as one who had lost family in the Holocaust — to see “Hitler and the Holocaust turned into comedy.”
Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council, warned that the film could be dangerous at a time of rising anti-Semitism in Europe.
While it’s “neither taboo nor forbidden” to laugh about Hitler, Kramer said, he “was not just a humorous figure with a tragic childhood… He doesn’t deserve any mitigating circumstances or pity.”
But Yves Kugelmann, editor in chief of Aufbau, a Swiss-based Jewish monthly, suggested that Levy had not gone far enough. He told the Deutsche Welle news agency that the film is “a sign of emancipation” and “provocative,” but thought “Levy lost his nerve and took a moralistic stance.”
These days, there is plenty of Hitler humor to be found in the German-speaking world. A big hit on the Internet in Germany is “Der Bonker,” a short animated cartoon by artists Walter Moers and Thomas Pigor that features Hitler in his bunker bathtub singing reggae style with his beloved puppy, Blondi.
Another is “Hitler Leasing.” Over actual film of Hitler giving a speech, student Florian Wittman pasted a routine in which German comedian Gerhard Polt complains about an unscrupulous car leasing company.
Other precedents come from outside Germany: In 1967, American actor-director Mel Brooks made “The Producers,” a comedy about a fictional Broadway musical featuring Nazis and the now-famous song “Springtime for Hitler.”
In 1990, a television series aired in the United Kingdom called “Heil Honey, I’m Home” about a couple, Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun, who live next door to the Goldensteins.
And “Goebbels and Geduldig,” which won several awards in 2001 — including two at the New York Film Festival — was billed as Germany’s first comic feature film dealing with Nazis and Jews.
Levy, who lives in Berlin, told JTA he never intended to present a historically accurate film, but wanted to use a typically Jewish approach of humor and analysis to deconstruct the Nazi psyche.
Levy said he has always had “very painful questions” about how Hitler could have achieved his monstrous crimes.
He said it was always difficult to “imagine that SA [storm troopers] would walk around and pull people out of cafes and houses and beat them in the streets and torture them and put them on trucks and deport them.”
The average German saw what was going on, he said.
“It was a public action, they were not just beamed away traceless,” Levy said. “So for years I was interested in understanding that public consciousness.”
In the climax Levy — playing with the German word “Heil,” which in English means both “hail” and “heal” — has the dictator begging to be healed and the German people responding in kind.
Do the German people need healing?
“I think Germans have learned a lesson and that this country is very mature,” Levy said. But “there are unhealed people, and there will always be chronic anti-Semites and racists and other idiots.”
But “I can tolerate living here and I can call Germany my Heimat, my homeland,” Levy said, “because I feel that there is an understanding between German people and Jews… lots of connections… that create a mutual culture.’’
Perhaps one of those connections is humor. Time, and the box office, will tell.