By David Crossland in Berlin
Adolf Hitler is returning to the Berlin theater where he watched "The Merry Widow" during World War II, but this time he'll be on stage, singing "Heil Myself," swinging his hips and fluttering his eyelashes in Germany's first production of Mel Brooks's celebrated musical comedy "The Producers."
Some reviewers are saying the city's historic Admiralspalast theater, which until recently had a Führer's Box specifically built for Hitler, is taking a risk by staging a play featuring tap-dancing stormtroopers singing "Watch out Europe we're going on tour" in the former capital of the Third Reich.
But the manager of the Admiralspalast, Falk Walter, says it was high time that Berlin staged "The Producers", which opened on Broadway in 2001 and has been performed in many cities around the world since then. It opens here on May 15.
"I've been trying to get 'The Producers' for ages. If there's any city in the world where it should be performed, it's Berlin," Walter told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "For one, this town was the root of all the evil. And it also happens to be the most tolerant and exciting city in Germany."
The musical, based on a 1968 feature film written and directed by Brooks, is about a Broadway producer and his accountant who decide that they can earn more money by staging a flop than a hit. So they put on the worst, most inappropriate show they can find: "Springtime for Hitler," written by a Nazi pigeon-fancier who has taught his birds to lift their wings in the Hitler salute.
Disappointingly for them, the singing and dancing Führer turns out to be so comic that audiences applaud the show as a satirical masterpiece and it becomes a hit, so the heroes go to jail for tax fraud. Mel Brooks's award-winning 2001 Broadway musical spawned a remake of the movie in 2005.
Walter is confident the musical won't flop in Berlin, even though some critics are wondering whether it should be staged here. "Should one be allowed to laugh about Hitler?" wrote Berliner Morgenpost, a local Berlin daily. Berliner Zeitung, another Berlin paper, wrote, "it remains risky to put this satire about Hitler on the stage in the former Reich capital -- even if it has been successful around the world and Jewish people in Tel Aviv laughed about it."
It remains to be seen how Berlin audiences will respond to the sight of statuesque blonde maidens wearing oversized pretzels and sausages on their heads as the lead tenor stormtrooper sings "Look out, here comes the master race!"
No German theater dared touch the musical until an Austrian company obtained the German-language rights and put it on at the Ronacher theatre in Vienna in 2008. Its success was modest, with performances only 70 percent booked out. The Vienna production, originally planned to run for one year, was stopped in February after 10 months and is now moving with its Austrian cast to the Admiralspalast.
Mel Brooks May Attend Debut
Walter said advance ticket sales have been good and that he's confident the run will be extended beyond the initially planned two months. He also thinks the Berlin incarnation will receive a prominent boost. "I'm pretty sure Mel Brooks will come to the premiere. I think he knows the significance of this being shown in Berlin," he said.
He said the Austrian production had been marketed too narrowly, focusing only on traditional musical aficionados, and that he was targeting a broader range of people who wouldn't usually go to see a stage musical. "Of all the musicals I've seen in my life it's by far the most exciting, the most bizarre and the most manic," Walter said. "I don't think Vienna managed to communicate that enough."
Apart from placards dotted around Berlin, Walter's advertising campaign has included stunts such as sending transvestites dressed in traditional dirndl dresses to parties at the Berlin Film Festival in February, and putting up posters of a knock-kneed Hitler around the city.
The Nazi swastika, banned in Germany as an unconstitutional symbol, has been left off advertising posters where it has been replaced by a pretzel, but the theater will be showing it on stage.
"I'm delighted and proud that this show is coming to our theater," said Walter. "This isn't about laughing at Hitler but basically about conveying in a humorous way what he was. It addresses the darkest chapter of German history. How could it happen that the country threw morals and ethics overboard and followed this megalomaniac charlatan?"
History of the Third Reich in a Song
Brooks's lyrics are a history lesson in themselves. "Germany was blue. What, oh, what to do?" the Führer croons plaintively, before pulling himself together: "Hitched up my pants. And conquered France! Now Deutschland's smiling through!"
Brooks, famous for film comedies such as "Silent Movie", "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein," has said Germans tend to misunderstand "The Producers" as being about Nazis and the Third Reich, when in fact it's about two Jewish crooks trying to get rich.
It's true that the 'Springtime for Hitler' show-within-a-show takes up only a small part of the musical. But goose-stepping helmeted Nazis and a Hitler singing lines such as "Raise your beer! Every hotsy-totsy Nazi come and cheer!" were always bound to raise eyebrows in both Germany and Austria.
Still, Walter said that 64 years after the end of World War II, Germans are sufficiently removed from that chapter of their past to accept a play like "The Producers." "It's important that only very few perpetrators and victims of that era are alive today," he said. "I think the time has come to take a more detached, bird's eye view of this period."
He's not the only one. In recent years, comedians and cartoonists in Germany have started trying to tap the Führer's comic potential, albeit tentatively. A film comedy about Hitler in 2007, by Swiss Jewish director Dani Levy, portrayed him as a bed-wetting drug addict with erectile problems who took baths with a toy battleship. Reviewers panned the film.
Echoes of the Roaring Twenties
For Walter, the Admiralspalast is the perfect place to put on "The Producers." The grand old building, located on the city's Friedrichstrasse theater mile, epitomizes Berlin's roaring 1920s and is the only theater left standing from an era when the city's nightlife was renowned throughout Europe.
Originally opened in 1911 as a revolutionary new type of leisure complex with a cinema, skating rink, restaurants and steam baths, it was converted into a music hall in 1923 with leg-swinging chorus line dancers. The late-night goings-on in those steam baths were the subject of much speculation.
Under the Nazis, the theater was refurbished and equipped with the legendary Führer's Box, and it started to put on tame operettas that were more to Hitler's taste. The building miraculously survived the bombardment of Berlin in World War II and remained a theater in East Berlin until unification in 1990.
It shut in the 1990s and the city government considered tearing it down but Walter and other investors decided to restore it to its old glory. He re-opened it in 2006 with a performance of Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera starring Klaus-Maria Brandauer.
"The first thing I did was scale down the size of the Führer's Box. It was absurdly big," Walter said. "It's still got the best seat in the house but it no longer dominates the auditorium. People kept coming up to me asking me where it was."
Hard Times for Berlin Theaters
Berlin's theater scene has been going through difficult times as a result of the financial crisis and changing customer tastes. The Wintergarten, a nostalgic variety theater, closed in January, the Friedrichstadtpalast revue theater has been in financial trouble and two famous comedy theaters on West Berlin's Kurfürstendamm are struggling to survive.
Walter said it would be hard for the city to revive the 1920s heyday, and that there was no point trying to copy it. "Many of the shows during the Golden Twenties were a load of rubbish anyway. It was basically about getting to see as many tits as possible. But in its way it enchanted people, and that's a great ambition."
Brooks's Hitler, with lines like Heil to me I'm the Kraut who's out to change our history, may end up giving Berlin's theater scene a helping hand.
"The Producers fits wonderfully into the city because at the moment musical theater is categorized as being either opera for culture vultures or mainstream musicals for morons," Walter said. "This show proves musical theater can be more than that."
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