Germany's first comedy about Adolf Hitler is being panned by reviewers ahead of its opening this week and has provoked a debate about whether the country should be laughing about the man who ordered the Holocaust.
"Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler" portrays Hitler as bed-wetting drug addict who takes baths with a toy battleship and dresses his Alsatian dog Blondi in an SS uniform. Swiss Jewish director Dani Levy says he wants to follow in the tradition of Charlie Chaplins 1940 classic "The Great Dictator."
He also wants to explore the theory that Hitler was taking revenge on the world for being beaten by his father.
In the film, set in late 1944, Hitler has lost faith in himself and a desperate Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels summons fictional Jewish acting coach Adolf Grünbaum from a concentration camp to get the dictator back in shape for a mass rally to reinvigorate the German people.
Grünbaum gives Hitler acting lessons which involve the dictator doing push-ups and walking on all fours barking like a dog. He eventually takes on the role of psychiatrist, discovering that the dictator is still suffering from his supposedly unhappy childhood.
The film is peppered with visual gags. Nazi zealots with odd names like Rattenhuber or Puffke raise their arms in Hitler salutes every few seconds. Grünbaum punches Hitler in the face and knocks him out by mistake.
The problem, say reviewers, is that the film just isn't funny. The slapstick humor with which Levy ridicules Hitler jars with his serious portrayal of the suffering Grünbaum and his emaciated family. Many of the gags don't work, such as Hitler's failure to satisfy Eva Braun. As he lies on top of her, she says "I can't feel you, Mein Führer."
A further criticism is that Hitler is shown to be so pathetic that the viewer is invited to feel sorry for him.
The film is bizarre rather than funny, writes Welt am Sonntag newspaper. "The dramaturgy is inconsistent, most of the jokes are flat, harmless or stale, and what's particularly offensive is that Adolf Hitler of all people is given quite sympathetic character traits."
Levy had plenty of material given that the real Hitler offered so much scope for humor with his manner of speaking, his Hitler salute and the huge discrepancy between his own physique and the Nazi ideal of a blonde, blue-eyed master race, writes Welt am Sonntag.
"With an unfortunate mixture of naivety and dramaturgic inability and with totally inappropriate empathy, Levy has now managed to make these revealingly grotesque traits of Hitler human and understandable, so that one is left thinking: Oh well, things weren't always easy for Adolf Hitler either," writes the paper.
"Should one be allowed to laugh about Hitler? Certainly," writes Tagesspiegel newspaper. "Should one be allowed to cry about him, to embrace him posthumously and comfort him for having had such a bad childhood? You can't get more vulgar than that, but this is precisely the impulse mobilized by 'Mein Führer."
Levy said the comedy marks an attempt to tear Hitler off the pedestal given him by documentaries and serious portrayals such as the 2004 film "The Downfall" about his last days in which Swiss actor Bruno Ganz gives chillingly realistic, and often unintentionally comic, renditions of the tyrant's spitting outbursts of rage.
Levy, who won critical claim for his 2004 comedy "Go For Zucker" about two Jewish brothers in post-unification Germany, told SPIEGEL ONLINE he was trying to "demystify" Hitler with scenes such as the one in which pet dog "Blondi" mounts the dictator as he walks on all fours around his giant Chancellery office.
He denied that he was showing empathy for Hitler. "Understanding something is different from excusing it," Levy said in an interview. "On the contrary: Understanding helps prevent hasty excuses." Levy has said the plot for "Mein Führer" was inspired in part by the theories of psychoanalyst Alice Miller who argues that Hitler's crimes stemmed from a traumatic childhood of parental abuse.
"My father once gave me a catapult," says a troubled Hitler, played by comedian Helge Schneider, who gives a faithful rendition of the dictator's clipped, guttural tone. "He looked up and told me 'Kill that pigeon!' I fired and the pigeon landed at his feet, stone dead. 'That was a fluke,' he said, and walked off."
Schneider, whose eccentric brand of stand-up comedy has made him a household name in Germany (he once had a chart hit with a song about a cat toilet), delivers a surprisingly straight performance which seems aimed at being accurate rather than comic.
He has recently distanced himself from the film. "It's only about showing Hitler as a weakling. I find that too profane. If I'd known that I might not even have agreed to play him," Schneider told Swiss newspaper Sonntagsblick.
"Mein Führer" falls far short of "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.
But Levy has the disadvantage of hindsight. Chaplin made the film in 1940, several years before the true horror of the Nazi concentration camp system became known. Chaplin said in 1964 he could not have made the film had he known about the Holocaust.
Should Germans Laugh About Hitler?
In Germany, "Mein Führer" has inevitably triggered a debate about whether it's appropriate to laugh about Hitler.
Author Ralph Giordano said: "There's a fine line between whether such a film succeeds on an artistic level or not. If it doesn't, it's damaging, because the audience will think Hitler is a joke figure."
Publicist Lea Rosh, who chairs the foundation in charge of Berlin's Holocaust Memorial, said: "I don't see how Hitler can be ridiculed unless you're a genius like Charlie Chaplin." Levy's film belittled the horror, she told Lübecker Nachrichten newspaper. "Among the clips I've seen was a scene in which Hitler sits in a bath playing with a warship. But the truth was totally different, it was deadly. Hitler wasn't a jovial chap with chubby cheeks. This isn't the way to get close to this figure."
Die Tageszeitung newspaper says the debate itself betrays a very German fixation with authority. "Sixty-five years ago you were thrown in a concentration camp if you made jokes about Hitler. And it still seems as though you need a license to laugh, as if there's a higher authority that decides whether one is allowed to laugh or not.
"With Chaplin or (Ernst) Lubitsch you're allowed to because they're regarded as heavyweights of cinema history; with Levy one prefers to let caution prevail," writes Die Tageszeitung. "But this notion is as fixated on authority as National Socialism itself."
In one of the rare amusing moments of "Mein Führer," Hitler's barber accidentally shaves off half his moustache, sending the dictator into a spitting rage so violent that he loses his voice minutes before he is due to address a mass rally.
Grünbaum, hidden underneath the stage for the rally, is forced at gunpoint to imitate Hitler's voice as the Führer mimes the speech. But he departs from the text of his speech.
German attitudes changing
A German-made farce about Hitler would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. But the gradual dying out of the Nazi era generation has given the country a more detached view of the past.
Younger generations in particular are ready ro laugh about Hitler. A comic series about him by cartoonist Walter Moers has been popular ever since it was launched in 1997 and a video clip from the series in which Hitler raps, sits on the toilet and takes a bath with rubber ducks that sing "Adolf you Nazi pig, why don't you capitulate" has proved a hit among Internet downloads in Germany.
So more than 60 years on, Germany does seem to be ready for a tongue-in-cheek approach to Hitler. The trick now is to come up with a funny one.