The Producers cast rehearses in Berlin. (Photo: Reuters)
Berliners learn to laugh out loud at Adolf Hitler, while his hateful ideas continue to promote violent attacks on Jews across the globe. It's a strange and troubling mix with important lessons about how confronting hate speech head-on works far better than well-meaning, but ill-fated efforts to ban it by law or bore it to death by being oh-so politically correct.
In Berlin, the Broadway musical "The Producers" opened in German this May to a standing ovation at the Admiralspalast Theater, where the FÃ¼hrer had his own private box to watch light operetta when he was not too busy planning the Final Solution. Mel Brooks wrote and directed the original as a film, which first appeared in 1968, winning an Academy Award for best original screenplay. Brooks then joined with Thomas Meehan to adapt the film as a slapstick musical for Broadway, where it won 12 Tony awards in 2001, the most ever given to a single play.
Brooks, an American Jew, tried for the last 8 years to bring the musical to Germany against great skepticism about how Hitler's compatriots would deal with the outrageously gay, blonde bimbo, and Jewish stereotypes, or with lyrics like "Don't be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party!"
The plot is Brooks at his borscht-belt best, with no attempt to pull his punch lines in pursuit of the politically correct. Two obviously Jewish shysters - a failed Broadway producer named Max Bialystock and his accountant Leo Bloom - set out to put on a play that seems certain to flop, leaving them free to fly off to Rio with most of their investors' money. They raise the gelt by screwing rich old ladies. They get the script from a Nazi lunatic who has lovingly written "Springtime for Hitler, a Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden." They hire the worst and campiest director and actors, along with a dumb Swedish blonde who "shtuppes to conquer." But, against all expectations, the audience loves the play as satire and it becomes a huge hit, landing Max and Leo in prison for embezzlement
The German audience loved the satire as well, though reviewers noted the raised eyebrows and nervous giggles. As Stern magazine reported, some theatergoers openly questioned "whether it was really necessary to have so much Nazi paraphernalia onstage."
The heartfelt question goes to the root of the hate-speech dilemma. A red Nazi flag adorns the outside of the Admiralspalast, though a black sausage and pretzel replaces the swastika, which German law still forbids. Audience members are all given a small flag of their own, which they wave enthusiastically when showgirls clad as storm-troops swing their legs in swastika formation and belt out the big song of the evening:
And now it's ...
Springtime for Hitler and Germany
Deutschland is happy and gay!
We're marching to a faster pace
Look out, here comes the master race!
With a swishy Hitler playing the lead Ãœbermensch, a pretzel on his Nazi armband and a Busby Berkeley dance extravaganza sending up the whole business, who could take the lyrics seriously? But would the audience have been more receptive to the racist poppycock if German law allowed them to wave flags with real Nazi swastikas?
As a longtime devotee of the demystifying power of free speech, I think not. Eyebrows might have lifted higher and nervous giggles grown louder, but the German audience would have gone even further in pulling the sting of the old Nazi poison. Audiences in New York and Tel Aviv managed to laugh their way through genuine swastikas. Why not Berliners, who still have to figure out why earlier generations of Germans failed to laugh away "The Great Dictator?"
What Mel Brooks challenges us all to do is to grow up and quit trying to outlaw or hide from all those things we find hateful. Better to bring the hatred into the sunlight - or limelight - where we can disinfect it with ridicule.
Most, if not all, of Europe has laws banning any speech that promotes racial or religious hatred. Many other countries have similar laws. But, where is any evidence that these laws do any good in dampening conflict? At best, they force the haters to hide their poison behind layers of innuendo that fool no one at all.
Here, in France, we have a series of laws that make it a crime to deny the Holocaust. At most, the prosecutions make heroes of the Holocaust deniers to their small coterie of followers and do nothing to spread the truth of how Hitler tried to annihilate Jews, Roma and Sinti, and gays. So why lean on ineffective laws that only get in the way? Leave historical truth to historians and to playwrights, as the First Amendment compels Americans to do. Springtime for Hitler is a much more effective way to marginalize the purveyors of hate.