There doesn't seem to be any big secret to making a serious film. All you need is serious dialogue, long pauses, and significant looks, tempered with the occasional nervous breakdown or attempted suicide on the part of the heroine. Comedies, on the other hand, require pacing and humor, not to mention an absurd idea that is just realistic enough to be believable.
And then there is the Olympics of entertainment: a comedy about Hitler, the Third Reich and the Jews -- not an easy task, but certainly doable. Charlie Chaplin led the way with "The Great Dictator," Mel Brooks managed it in "The Producers," and Radu Mihaileanu surpassed everyone else with his Holocaust comedy "Train of Life."
In Germany, a country that felt compelled to enact a law that makes denying the Holocaust a crime -- in other words, a place where the basis for a humorous treatment of the Nazi issue is available -- the same questions are posed again and again, and with good reason: Is this allowed? Doesn't it trivialize Hitler?
That question, which contains an accusation, was recently addressed to producer Bernd Eichinger and his director, Oliver Hirschbiegel in regard to their film "Downfall," about Hitler's last days. The two men were accused of having trivialized Hitler by "making him human." But even Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a well-known Jewish German literary critic who survived the Holocaust, has said that Hitler was just a man. Should he be portrayed as, say, an elephant? It's easy, but those who choose the easy route are promptly issued warnings by our moral guardians, who insist that "respect for the victims" alone is enough to prohibit making a comedy about a human tragedy.
If only that were true. But the reality is that it is not the victims who are protected but the descendants of Hitler et al., who, more than 60 years after the Big Bang, continue to avoid a gruesome little truth: That the Germans were not seduced by a demon, but by an impotent nobody with a flatulence problem. Being seduced by a demon is bad, but being seduced by a nobody is embarrassing. It's like a man bragging about having an affair with Pamela Anderson, only to be caught in the act with an ugly duckling. This is the thing which plagues the Germans to this day, and for which they cannot forgive themselves: The Third Reich is an embarrassment to them. Therapy can't help overcome this humiliation, neither can a near-victory in the football World Cup or the popularity of Porsche cars in the United States.
This is why Levy was on the right track when he cast comedian Helge Schneider, Mr. Embarrassing himself, in the leading role. If Hitler could play the role of German chancellor, then Schneider can certainly play Hitler. It was also a good idea to cast Ulrich Mühe as the Jewish actor Adolf (!) Grünbaum, whose job in the film is to prepare the depressive Führer for a public appearance. "Albert," Hitler says to his friend Speer, the Nazi architect, "I feel better than I've felt in a long time. Eternal youth has returned to me. The Jew's good."
It's one of the few punchlines that happily overshoots the mark. Most backfire -- just like the Führer, who is forced to terminate an attempt to bed Eva Braun (played by Katja Riemann) on New Year's Eve without achieving the desired result ("I still feel nothing!").
Depicting Hitler as someone who likes to sink boats and play with himself in the bathtub, nearly drowning in the process, is only marginally humorous and does little to de-demonize Hitler as a person.
Levy does his best to portray Hitler as a poor devil, an attempt that of course cannot succeed, because someone who admits that he is having a hard time can no longer be a poor devil. And just to make sure than no one will think of accusing him of trivializing the Third Reich or making fun of victims' suffering, Levy uses the family of Jewish actor Grünbaum as a moral counterweight to the Nazis.
Grünbaum's wife (Adriana Altaras) and his children not only look extremely Jewish, but they also possess a conscience and speak lines full of reason and a belief in decency. Which is where the film falls to pieces -- into an absurd part that isn't absurd enough and a moral part that is too moral. No matter how skilled the cook, a pork chop can never be turned into a kosher delicacy.
"Go for Zucker!", Dani Levy's last film, was so effective as a comedy because there Levy didn't have the handbrake on, even if he ran the risk of being misunderstood.
In "Mein Führer," Levy has taken out an insurance policy against being misunderstood. It begins with the bantering subtitle ("The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler") and ends with a statement by actor Helge Schneider, in which the "many-talented actor in his first character role" reveals an anthropological secret: "Good and evil have the same home, and that home is man."
Henryk Broder is the author of the memoir "A Jew in the New Germany" (University of Illinois Press, 2003). He is a regular contributor to Der Spiegel.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan