Hitler and humor combined in a new German film

Dani Levy's Mein Fuehrer... treads once off-limited grounds portraying Hitler playing with toy battleships in the tub

Hitler in Tub (photo credit: )
Hitler in Tub
(photo credit: )
Coming soon to German cinemas: a demoralized, drug-addled Adolf Hitler who plays with a toy battleship in the bathtub, dresses his dog in Nazi uniform and takes acting tips from a Jewish concentration camp inmate. The movie, which opens January 11, is treading ground that once would have been off-limits. This is not Mel Brooks' The Producers or Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, but a German movie that dares to treat Hitler as comedy. Mein Fuehrer: die wirklich wahrste Wahrheit ueber Adolf Hitler (Mein Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler) follows the Oscar-nominated Downfall, the 2004 German film that broke new ground in portraying Hitler from a German perspective, offering a controversially intimate and lifelike portrait of his last days. Mein Fuehrer... director Dani Levy, a Swissborn Jew who lives in Berlin, says he has long felt the need to explain for himself how it was possible for Germans to follow Hitler, ultimately dragging the nation into war and the Holocaust. "I had the feeling that I must do it with another genre, do it by being able to exaggerate through comedy," Levy said. Levy's plot starts in December 1944, with Berlin in ruins and Hitler too depressed to deliver a much-awaited speech to rally his people. His propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, finds a solution in Adolf Gruenbaum, a fictional Jewish actor who coached Hitler at the beginning of his career and is now in a concentration camp. "We need someone who can ignite our Fuehrer's greatest strength - and that strength is his hatred," Goebbels explains. Gruenbaum uses the mission to try to kill Hitler, but fails. So he puts him through humiliating exercises such as crawling around barking like a dog. The farce broadens when Hitler's barber accidentally shaves off half his mustache; the enraged dictator shouts himself hoarse and Gruenbaum has to lip-sync the big speech, but deviates from the script to make Hitler look even sillier. All this would have been unthinkable a decade ago, when Germans were engrossed in "a very serious appraisal of Nazism" and how to commemorate its victims, said Paul Nolte, a professor of contemporary history at Berlin's Free University. Today they find it "easier to go beyond that and enter other genres," he said. Meanwhile, the German public's distance from the events has grown as the World War II generation dwindles. Levy, 49, points to Italian director Roberto Benigni's Oscar-winning 1997 film La Vita e Bella (Life is Beautiful) - about a father who uses desperate and hilarious means to shield his son from the horrors of a Nazi death camp and convince him it is all an elaborate game - as a taboo-breaking forerunner. "I think it is important that we create new pictures of our own, also of the Holocaust or Nazism, and not always work off the old, realistic pictures, because I think that just makes us lazy and tired, and we don't learn anything from it," said Levy. Downfall divided critics, with some questioning whether Hitler should be given a human portrayal and objecting that it glossed over the broader historical context, including the Holocaust. The critics haven't yet commented on Mein Fuehrer... but the weekly Der Spiegel says the new wave of films about Hitler is demonstrating "a need to break the myth down to a normal human ... that makes him more everyday, perhaps easier to understand, in any case smaller." "The ultimate way to shrink a myth is to make it laughable," it added. At the same time, Germans have experienced, perhaps for the first time since before the war, the full force of national pride, engendered by their successful staging of the soccer World Cup last summer. Mein Ball, a musical staged in Hamburg this year, even managed to marry the disparate themes by imagining Hitler trying to save Germany by staging the World Cup. The film version of Mel Brooks' stage-play The Producers, with its signature song "Springtime for Hitler," screened in German cinemas last spring without creating a major stir. In a related sign of changing attitudes, it is also a huge stage hit in Israel, home to tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors, with very few complaints of bad taste. Levy has already had a hit in Germany with Alles auf Zucker (Go for Zucker), a lighthearted look at Jewish life in a Germany amid the East-West divisions that still fester from the Cold War. Levy is optimistic that his new film will also find a market outside Germany.