German comedian Helge Schneider portrays Adolf Hitler in Berlin.
Tourists passing in sightseeing buses stared open-mouthed at the scene in central Berlin on Monday: huge red banners bearing the Nazi swastika fluttering in the winter sun outside the city's cathedral, Wehrmacht soldiers in their steel helmets standing guard between the imposing pillars of the Old Museum and a crowd of hundreds cheering their Führer with enthusiastic Hitler salutes and chants of "Sieg Heil!"
But a second glance caught the film crew, catering buses and cinema equipment and quickly dispelled any concern that the Fourth Reich had quietly dawned in Germany over the weekend. Still, the sight was unusual enough to draw a crowd of onlookers and it marked a bold first in the history of German cinema since World War II -- a comedy about Hitler.
"Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler" by Swiss director Dani Levy, who is Jewish, takes a tongue-in-cheek look at Hitler's final days and parodies both the dictator and recent portrayals of him such as the critically-acclaimed 2004 film "Der Untergang" ("The Downfall"), which itself broke a taboo by attempting to showing the Nazi leader's human side.
Levy has said he wants the film to be an "anti-signal" against films which he believes have put Hitler on too much of a pedestal. The film is being backed with 450,000 of public money from film development firm Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg which describes the plot as follows: "Hitler lives and tells the story of what he was really like -- a weakling who only made it to the top with the help of the Jew Grünbaum."
In Chaplin's Footsteps
It remains to be seen whether the film can match the 1940 classic "The Great Dictator" in which Charlie Chaplin as "Adenoid Hynkel" dances around his office holding the earth in his hands in the shape of a big balloon and holds rabid speeches in gibberish German in which "Wienerschnitzel" seems to be the only recognizable word.
Levy's Hitler is portrayed by German comedian Helge Schneider -- who is perhaps best-known for his hit song "Katzeklo" about a cat litter box sung in a slightly disturbing nasal tone. Levy won acclaim for his 2004 comedy "Alles Auf Zucker" about an atheist sports journalist from eastern Germany forced to reconcile himself with his brother, an orthodox Jew from western Germany, to get hold of his mother's inheritance.
A German-made farce about Hitler would have been unthinkable until quite recently. But the gradual dying out of the Nazi era generation -- over 80 percent of Germans today were born after 1941 -- has given the country a more detached view of its past, even though politicians continue to acknowledge the country's deep moral responsibility for the Holocaust.
Several taboos have fallen in recent years. Germans have started recalling their own suffering in bombing raids and mass evictions from eastern territories. An intimate -- if unsympathetic -- portrayal of Hitler followed in "The Downfall." And the public ZDF television channel is currently screening a film about the February 1945 bombing of Dresden, which some Germans see as the unnecessary destruction of a city that caused mostly civilian casualties.
So despite a headline in top-selling tabloid Bild Zeitung alerting people to the "Swastika Shock in Berlin," the sight of the Nazi symbol didn't stoke much controversy. The president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Paul Spiegel, told the paper: "Helge Schneider and Dani Levy have the ability to approach this work with the necessary sensitivity."
Tourists as extras
Some tourists even joined in as extras to beef up the 300-strong crowd, which Levy plans to enhance digitally to give the impression of a mass rally.
Steve Krause, 31, an Aryan-looking American student, was picked along with a number of fellow students to join the crowd hailing the Führer. "I'm going to have to try not to laugh," said Krause, who just happened to be passing when a member of staff lured him with the offer of a hot chocolate after the shoot.
Dutch tourist Louw Hekkema couldn't believe his eyes at first. "I thought there was a far-right demonstration going on," he said. "I don't think making such a film here is a problem anymore."
Since Nazi symbols like the swastika and SS runes are banned in Germany, Levy obtained special permission to display his banners.
Locals watching the filming also didn't seem particularly bothered by it. One Berlin pensioner said he remembered watching the real Hitler hold a May Day speech from the same spot 65 years ago. "We Berliners came here and cheered," said the man who declined to be named. "I don't see why anyone should get angry about a film being made here. It's part of our history."
Photos by Erik Seemann