BERLIN—He wets the bed, cries because he's lonely and spits food when he talks. His name is Adolf Hitler, and Germans aren't quite sure they're ready to laugh about history's greatest villain.
There's been no shortage of looks at Hitler during the past 60 years here, but "Mein Fuehrer"—a film comedy that opened Thursday across Germany—is causing controversy, reflection and a fair amount of angst.
The fictional story follows a Jewish psychologist who's pulled from forced labor in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp to treat Hitler, who's lost his self-confidence.
The laughs come uneasily as Hitler cries about childhood beatings, is encouraged by the purported psychologist to crawl on all fours and bark (and is mounted by Blondie, his beloved German shepherd) and is told by Eva Braun, "I can't feel you, Mein Fuehrer," as he attempts intercourse.
Playing in a theater that's just a couple of blocks from the bunker where Hitler committed suicide 61 years ago, it has a strange and creepy feel. Hitler even comes off sympathetically at times. At a Berlin preview Wednesday, laughs were scarce in the small crowd. No more than a third of the theater was full for the first look here at a film that everyone is talking about.
As one moviegoer noted, leaving the theater: "OK, but did it need to be made?"
A half-century after his death, Hitler is a constant presence in modern Germany. But he'd spent decades being shown only as a caricature or a shadowy presence in the background.
That changed in 2004 with "The Downfall," a critically acclaimed look at the final days in Hitler's bunker. In that movie, Hitler was portrayed as a human being for the first time, complimenting a cook after a good meal and being kind to a secretary in addition to ranting about conquering Europe.
German television features a steady flow of Third Reich documentaries, and there's even some history of joking about Germany's most infamous dictator.
One spoof combines a short film of a Hitler speech with audio from a stand-up comic's riff on getting ripped off while buying a used car. In 2006, a short cartoon titled "Der Bonker"—the bunker, misspelled—showed a grumpy Hitler with a very large nose singing about the bombs being dropped on him. A song from that cartoon became one of 2006's most popular ring tones in Germany. And, of course, Germans have seen the parodies from outside their borders, from the camp "hotsy, totsy Nazi" in Mel Brooks' "The Producers" to Monty Python's parody of Hilter trying to tell a joke.
But this is the first full-length German comedy about Hitler. It was directed by a Jew, Dani Levy. Observers say that no non-Jewish director could have gotten away with it. He's also Swiss, and not being German helps as well. In recent interviews, Levi has said his intention was to knock Hitler off his pedestal.
Observers and experts agree that the film does that. Hitler is more a bumbler than a monster. But they aren't sure he was knocked in the right direction. The film makes him sympathetic.
Germans aren't exactly excited about this work. A Stern Magazine poll indicates that 56 percent of them disapprove of a Hitler-themed comedy, while 35 percent approve. In what used to be East Germany, 22 percent approve and two-thirds disapprove.
Manfred Goertemaker, a German historian at Potsdam University, noted that he was concerned even by the preview clips of the movie.
"It's a dangerous film for Germany," he said. "This was the old way of looking at him, a crazy man who somehow tricked Germans into following him. The reality is that he was very normal, though charismatic. He didn't trick Germans into following so much as we wanted to follow him."
Lea Rosh, who's known for heading the effort to build Berlin's controversial Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, simply noted, "The killing of 6 million Jews is not suited for a comedy, particularly a badly made one. We are talking about a uniquely terrible history, the most horrific crime ever committed. I just don't consider Hitler funny."
The film is well-done, the production looks big budget, the performances are consistent. The story follows a narrative line. But is it funny?
Rosh noted that, over time, Germans will be able to laugh at their past, but she thinks that time is far off.
Klaus Boehnke, a sociologist at the International University in Bremen, thinks laughing about Hitler might be a good idea: "Humor can uncover the banality of evil."
But despite the huge buzz the film has created, he's not sure it's box-office dynamite. "The right won't go see it because it mocks their hero. The left won't see it because they'll find it morally repulsive," he said.
The concept of the film is being compared to the recent "Life Is Beautiful" and Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator." That's a high bar for an odd little dark comedy, and German critics haven't been overly impressed.
The newspaper Tageszeitung noted: "it's weird: 65 years ago making jokes about Hitler could land you in a concentration camp and even today it seems you need a license to laugh."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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