06/08/2006 01:46 PM

Hitler's World Cup

Fascists and Football Hit the Stage

By Mariah Blake in Hamburg

His secret weapon never materialized, but would Hitler have won World War II if he had staged a World Cup? That's the premise of a new comedy now playing in a Hamburg theater. The play breaks through taboos, but it has a serious side as well.

It’s April 1945. Adolf Hitler and a few members of his inner circle are huddled around a table in a dank concrete bunker. Behind them sits a stack of ammunition boxes with a dusty globe perched on top -- a pathetic token of their dashed ambitions. Everyone in the cellar is bleary-eyed, desperate, and nearly comatose.

Then, suddenly, Hitler rises.

He hobbles toward his secretary, Traudl Junge, who begins tapping away on her large-key typewriter. But the peevish Führer tears the paper out and crumples it up. He stands for a few minutes, shoulders slumped, and then starts batting the crumpled wad around with his feet, a childish grin spreading over his lips. He has finally hit on a scheme to save his empire from destruction: “Germany should be football world champion!”

With this, his followers leap to their feet and burst into medley. “Roll Over Beethoven,” bleeds into “Tutti Frutti.” Next the Führer belts out a rollicking version of “Blue Suede Shoes,” his toes swiveling and his pelvis pumping. Then he caps the number with a crotch-grabbing thrust. All the while the audience roars.

But there’s also some grumbling amid the laughter.

Indeed, the play, called “Mein Ball: A German Dream,” has stirred up a measure of controversy. Some theatergoers have stomped out of Hamburg's Schauspielhaus, where it is playing through the end of June. Others have booed throughout the production. Hardly surprising perhaps. After all, “Mein Ball” tramples on some big taboos. Not only is it among the first German theater productions to turn Hitler into comedy, something that would have been unthinkable until a few years ago. But it also pokes fun at football, a sport that enjoys near-sacred status in Germany. The play’s very plot -- Hitler planning a World Cup tournament to salvage his empire -- is a dig at the hopes Germans have pinned on this year's World Cup tournament, which kicks off on Friday.

While hardly anyone expects the home team to get much beyond the group stage, many Germans expect the event to burnish the nation’s image. It’s also meant to give the economy a boost and cure countless social ills. Germany’s faith in the redemptive power of football dates back to 1954, when a World Cup victory helped restore a measure of pride to the humiliated nation and is often identified as the event that triggered the Economic Miracle.

But the Swedish-born writer and director of "Mein Ball," Erik Gedeon, believes it is absurd for affluent, modern-day Germany to expect another “Miracle of Bern.” And he mocks politicians who play on Germans’ football dreams -- sometimes using officials’ own words. In one scene, de-facto first lady of the Third Reich, Magda Goebbels, gives a speech that was originally delivered by real-life Chancellor Angela Merkel. “Football,” she declares, “inspires millions to show exemplary commitment," “promotes professionalism,” and “shapes society deeply.” What’s more, the “sport’s model character,” encourages Germans to help the young and the handicapped -- and even helps foreigners better integrate into society.

On the outrage spectrum, likening Angela Merkel to Magda Goebbels is up there. But turning Hitler in to a comic gag is outright visionary. For most of the last six decades, it was simply too taboo to laugh along with Hitler. Even today, Führer funnies are rare.

But they're beginning to crop up slowly as Germany learns to laugh -- with hand held firmly before mouth -- at the country's darkest hour. Turkish-born comic Serdar Somuncu has been known to read excerpts of "Mein Kampf" as part of his routine. And the first German-made movie to portray Hitler in a comic light is currently in production. Its name: “Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler.”

In some ways, “Mein Ball” echoes Charlie Chaplin’s seminal Third Reich comedy, “The Great Dictator,” which caricatures Hitler's rabid speeches and flailing gestures. But the play's slapstick is far racier. Take, for instance, the scene where Hitler’s chief bodyguard, Johann Rattenhuber, plops onto his bosses lap gives him a fiery kiss. (When the Führer pulls away, Rattenhuber yanks his pistol from its holster and bursts into the Buddy Holly ditty, “That’ll be the Day,” while his bunker mates sachet across the stage, guns pointed at their temples.) In another scene, Hitler and his followers sing Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” while fondling a football with orgiastic glee.

Moments like these make some theatergoers squirm. And Gedeon says that’s the point. “Most Germans see Hitler as an abstract devil who doesn’t go to the bathroom,” he explains. “But a very physical Hitler, one who’s real and human, is more provocative. And more interesting.”

The Führer in "Mein Ball" is more than a just bawdy caricature, though. Like the controversial 2004 film, "Der Untergang" (The Downfall), the play depicts Hitler as a desperate man clinging to a fraying world. At moments his plight even invites twinges on sympathy.

This blend of slapstick and serious can make for some jarring moments. At one point, Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels is fumbling with a football. Suddenly his wife, Magda -- a hopelessly stiff woman in a taffeta gown -- cracks and plunges two knitting needles into the gut of a bloomer-clad baby doll. The scene hints at the grisly fate of the real Magda Goebbels, who poisoned her six children, then killed herself.

In another scene, Hitler’s cronies, overjoyed at the prospect of a World Cup victory, burst into John Lennon’s “Imagine” as they swoon over a football. Traudl Junge seizes the moment to unfurl a giant swastika flag. Echoing through the theater is the verse: “I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will be as one.” Suddenly, the audience quits laughing.

Gedeon suggests such scenes are intended as reminders of how quickly feel-good football patriotism can veer into darker nationalistic impulses. “In a second,” he says, “the dream can become a nightmare.”

The director feared that the sinister moments might threaten the play’s popularity. But, despite the aura of controversy, the production has won over most theatergoers. Dariush Ghobad, a 28-year-old fundraiser and theater aficionado, called it “the best thing I’ve seen this season. The whole thing made sense and it was really, really funny.”

Still, not everyone is ready to see Third Reich portrayed so lightly. “Hitler shouldn’t be allowed to become a comic or cult figure,” says Anita Matt, a 71-year-old retiree. “That could be dangerous, especially for young people who didn’t live through those times and don’t know how dire they really were.”


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