'Frühling für Hitler und Vaterland': 'The Producers' Receives Standing Ovation in Berlin

By Christine Wahl

It took eight years for Mel Brooks' runaway Broadway musical success to come to Germany, but "The Producers" is finally opening in Berlin. It received standing ovations at the public preview on Friday night.

In a documentary film a few years back, American director James Cameron described Hitler as the "greatest pop star of his time." A theater in Berlin right now is working overtime to prove this thesis.

Earlier this week, a 42-year-old former police officer and carer for the elderly was prosecuted and given a €900 ($1,213) fine for lopping the head off of a controversial Hitler wax figure on the opening day of the Berlin branch of Madame Tussauds in July. Hitler has since been recapitated, and his wax likeness is back on view in the museum on the city's Unter den Linden boulevard.

Just around the corner, though, at the Admiralspalast Theater on Friedrichstrasse, there's a new Hitler controversy. The Führer is portrayed as a campy, singing and dancing laughingstock. Mel Brooks' Broadway musical "The Producers," based on the 1969 film of the same name, has arrived in the German capital.

In Brooks' show, two producers set out to create the greatest Broadway flop of all time so that they can fleece investors and run off to Rio with the money. Against all odds, bad taste and rules of theater, though, "Springtime for Hitler," based on a crummy script written by a lunatic aging Nazi, becomes a runaway hit. The Berlin production, with its risqué promotional campaign, has already been causing quite a stir in the German capital. The Admiralspalast theater has been draped in giant red flags bedecked with black pretzels and sausages -- a satire on the swastika flag, illegal in postwar Germany.

It's an effective PR gag, but it has also sparked anew Germany's perennial debate over whether it's acceptable to laugh about Hitler. Be it the "Great Dictator" (1940), Ernst Lubitsch's "To Be or not To Be" (1942) or Swiss director Dani Levy's "My Führer" from 2007, nothing has changed in this debate.

It was clear that bringing "The Producers" to Germany would raise eyebrows, and it took ages before it got adapted for the German stage. In New York, the Broadway hit garnered 12 Tony Awards and broke all records. Productions were staged everywhere from Finland to Australia, even packing the house in Tel Aviv. The Hollywood remake in 2005 was no different. But it remained problematic for the Germans.

Stage Entertainment, a Hamburg-based company that stages Broadway-quality musicals across Germany, secured the rights to premier "The Producers" here several years back, but the company got cold feet in the end and dropped it. In the end, the first German-language staging of "The Producers" opened in Vienna last year. But it failed to achieve the success the musical had seen at other cities around the world. Initially, the theatre was filled to 70-percent capacity, but as the economic crisis set in, ticket sales began to plummet. But the Vienna theater that staged the show had secured rights to it from Brooks' production company for one year -- and the Admiralspalast approached the Austrians about bringing the show to Berlin for a two-month stint.

It remains to be seen what kind of reaction the show will get here. At the public preview on Friday evening, the audience put the pretzel flags, which were distributed at the entrance as a risqué prop, to good use, as if they were at a child's birthday party. There was hardly a song that didn't receive -- somewhat excessive -- applause accompanied by plenty of flag waving.

In the process, the musical serves as a kind of lesson about the half-life of works of art. Brooks' film, which represented a massive provocation when it was released in 1969, has without question arrived in the blandest part of the mainstream. Although the work deals with a retro-musical which deliberately evokes the 1950s as a counterpart to the slick Broadway zeitgeist, nowadays more daring provocations are required. Hence the crazy old Bavarian Nazi sings the German national anthem and the swastika armbands are somewhat more obvious than in the original.

And the fact that the distasteful climax -- the musical within the musical in which hot showgirls in Nazi uniforms kick up their legs as they sweetly sing "Springtime for Hitler and Germany" -- garnered by far the most enthusiastic applause of the evening can hardly be held against the audience. At no other time was Susan Stroman's choreography quite so imaginative. It didn't matter whether the two producers (played by Cornelius Obonya and Andreas Bieber) were cutting a rug with the gay musical director (Martin Sommerlatte) across the floor, or were seducing the Swedish blonde bombshell Ulla (Bettina Mönch): The changes of scene and costumes provided more variety than the dance sequences.

Nevertheless, the preview ended with a standing ovation. Hence this version of "The Producers," staged by Nigel West, clearly fits perfectly into the current wave of mainstream Third Reich-themed entertainment as the light-hearted counterpart to Hollywood productions such as "Valkyrie" or "Defiance," with their one-dimensional resistance heroes and tired clichés.

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