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Three weeks into December, the latest incarnation of Mel Brooks'sThe Producers will open as, of all things, a Christmas movie. The yuletide season is the time of financial prayers for Hollywood, when prospective blockbusters float aloft like so many balloons in the Macy's parade.
There, alongside the remake of King Kong, the latest installment of Harry Potter and Disney's screen adaptation of C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia - all that middlebrow product - will appear the story of two Jewish schemers and their con game built around a Broadway musical extolling Adolf Hitler.
The arrival of The Producers is the culmination of a strange and revealing circumnavigation of the cultural world. In one respect the movie attests to the Jewish impact on American society at large, its remarkable influence upon an overwhelmingly gentile nation. The new film reunites one Catholic (Nathan Lane) and one half-Jew (Matthew Broderick) in the starring roles they first inhabited on stage, helping the show win 12 Tony awards and accumulate the largest advance sale in Broadway history.
Yet the popular phenomenon has come at a certain cost, or least with a certain amnesia. In its original moment, 37 years ago, The Producers exemplified an edgy, outsider art that Brooks shared with Jewish satirists such as Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. Most specifically, his movie was a daring act of catharsis, wielding humor against Amalek, disarming existential threat with ridicule. The more The Producers becomes everyone's amusement, the more Brooks himself becomes the loveable septuagenarian, the more we lose the audacious, exhilarating quality of both man and show.
WHEN BROOKS first started pitching a film then titled Springtime for Hitler to Hollywood studios in the late 1960s, the mandarins of that heavily Jewish industry all said no. So did independent producers, normally the champions of iconoclasm. This script, after all, ventured well into the danger zone, focusing on two producers who plan to get rich by keeping the excess investment in a sure flop, a neo-Nazi's romantic musical about Hitler and Eva Braun.
Brooks, it is true, was not the first American artist to dare lampoon the Nazis. In the early years of World War II, Charlie Chaplin parodied Hitler as "Adenoid Hinkle" in The Great Dictator, and Spike Jones gave him a musical Bronx cheer in Der Fuhrer's Face. Those broadsides, though, were released before the Final Solution became known, and they were the creations of gentiles, who were the incidental rather than the deliberate objects of Nazi genocide. For American Jews, the decades immediately after the war and the revelation of the Shoah were a time to exult in their role in winning the war and to enjoy their own upward mobility rather than to dwell upon the extermination of their European brethren. When Elie Wiesel's memoir Night was published in English translation in 1960, it sold barely 1,000 copies in its first year.
It took a transgressor on the order of Lenny Bruce to impersonate a salesman peddling "a Volkswagen pickup truck that was just used slightly during the war carrying people back and forth to the furnaces," as Lawrence J. Epstein points out in his authoritative book on American Jewish comedy, The Haunted Smile. The popular television series Hogan's Heroes indeed portrayed the German guards of a prisoner-of-war camp as bumbling fools, but, like many depictions of the war against Germany, it never made reference to the specifically anti-Semitic essence of the Nazi regime.
By the time Brooks pitched his idea for what would become The Producers, the climate had begun to change. The trial of Adolf Eichmann, the belated discovery of Night, and the Six-Day War, had all made the Holocaust a permissible subject of discussion among American Jews. Such discussion, however, almost always took the form of reverence and mournfulness, a funeral prayer, El Moleh Rahamim.
The death camps had been liberated and the corpses and ovens discovered barely a generation before Brooks wrote his screenplay; it was closer to him in 1968 than the Vietnam War is to us today. No wonder, then, that so many real producers passed on The Producers. No wonder the film tanked at the box office and was resigned to the smug ranks of a cult classic until the Broadway musical premiered several years ago.
Who could possibly laugh at the Nazis? They had inscribed their might on six million bodies. Having served in the American army during World War II and seen refugees with his own eyes, Brooks surely understood this right down to his marrow.
HIS SPRITZING scorn for the Nazis in The Producers, then, was the spite of a survivor, the proof Jews had outlasted and outlived their would-be executioners. To see Nazis reduced to pathetic wannabes and high-kicking production numbers was to deprive them of their enduring power, the power to induce nightmares and breakdowns and suicides so many years after.
"If you ridicule them, bring them down with laughter, they can't win," Brooks has said. "You show how crazy they are." In another interview, he put it this way: "Humor is just another defense against the universe."
As gifted as Broderick and Lane promise to be in the current version of The Producers, by dint of both religion and generation they cannot possibly grasp the scary, vertiginous liberation that Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder did in the original. Only because Mel Brooks shattered the psychic barriers back in 1968 can The Producers in 2005 seem so inevitably, disappointingly safe.
The writer, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author most recently of Who She Was: My Search For My Mother's Life.