Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Producers in Berlin

I have a sense of humor. I really do. (I heard that! But I know you didn’t mean it.) But I don’t want to write to you today about me or my alleged sense of humor, but rather about the opening of The Producers last week in Berlin.

Like all of you, I’m sure, I saw the original 1968 movie featuring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. In fact, I think I actually saw it in 1968. It was a long time ago. I was fifteen. I got it, but now I think I probably also didn’t get it. But I laughed. We all laughed. I had a good friend in those days whose father had a number tattooed on his arm. The three of us saw the movie together, in fact, but my friend’s father didn’t laugh. That, of course, made no impression on the fifteen-year-old me—he didn’t laugh at much, that guy (later, when I heard his story in more detail, I knew why) and this was just one more thing that failed to amuse him. Besides, I told myself, he probably barely understood it—he only spoke five or six languages fluently and had three university degrees, so why shouldn’t he have found incomprehensible a movie that teenagers like myself understood easily? Later on, after he died (and after I had the great privilege of eulogizing him), I regretted my impudence. But by then, of course, it was too late to apologize. He probably wouldn’t have even remembered the incident. Or maybe he would have….

From there, The Producers went on to bigger things. Opening as a musical on Broadway in 2001 starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, the show eventually won a record twelve Tony Awards and ran for over 2,500 performances. The show also won eleven Drama Desk Awards and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical of 2001. There was a U.S. tour. There were international productions in Toronto, Sydney, Melbourne, Tel Aviv, Seoul, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Copenhagen, Milan, Budapest, Madrid, Prague, Stockholm, Caracas, Moscow, and many other cities around the world. You get the idea. It was a huge hit. The productions were similar, yet also distinct. In Tel Aviv, for example, Hitler was for some reason depicted as morbidly obese (yet also no less effeminate than on Broadway), and local sensitivities were catered to by having the actors spit on the ground when his name was mentioned and mutter the Hebrew words yimach shemo (“May his name be erased”). That showed ‘em!

And now The Producers has come to Germany, opening last week in Berlin at the same Admiralspalast Theater in which the real Hitler once had a private box. The story, which I’m sure all of my readers already know, has to do with two Jewish New Yorkers, one a conniver and the other his willing lemmeleh, who attempt to make a fortune by raising a huge amount of money to open a show on Broadway that closes long before most of the money is spent. In their attempt to find something so indescribably terrible that its chances for success are truly zero, they finally locate the script to a show called Springtime for Hitler, which they actually manage to produce. In the end, the show is mistaken for satire, ends up garnering rave reviews, and ruins both men. Hah! But in between the beginning of the show and the end, we are treated to a long series of jokes about…Hitler, the Nazis, the S.S., the invasion of France, the Second World War itself, and, yes, the Jews. (There are, I should mention, no specific jokes about the Shoah—apparently that would have been too much even for a Mel Brooks—but there might as well have been: we all know what the same storm troopers dancing their way across the stage in their tight-fitting pants were doing during the war when they weren’t taking tap lessons. If you can’t quite conceive of the whole thing, take a look here at this clip from the Berlin production: . When the window opens up, click on “video starten.” You’d better be sitting down while you watch, though.)

And now we are being treated, if that is the right word, to reviewers in Germany and elsewhere commenting on how positive a development it is that we have finally turned the corner, that we can finally laugh at the Nazis and their leaders. Indeed, in a poll conducted by the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper, 56% of respondents indicated that making jokes about the Nazis should be considered perfectly acceptable, while a mere 20% thought such jokes to be in bad taste. (Interestingly, the final 24% indicated that making such jokes was acceptable but that they personally would not go to see such a show. So that makes just under three-quarters of the respondents who were not outraged, who considered the whole concept either fully or at least theoretically non-offensive.)

For those of us for whom the duty to remember the victims of the Shoah is a daily obsession, this is all very confusing. Even as a boy, I remember finding Hogan’s Heroes confusing. (When I later learned that both the actors who played Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz were themselves Jewish and that the family of John Banner, who played Schultz, was actually exterminated during the war, I was even more confused.) But the issue has, at least for me personally, crystallized around The Producers. I didn’t see the musical—I couldn’t bring myself to go, although Joan went with a girlfriend—but I did watch the 2005 movie. And I’ve listened carefully to the CD of the musical. Of course, I laughed—it’s pretty funny stuff—but I also felt ashamed of myself for laughing. In the end, it comes down to the fact that nothing looms larger in my worldview than the Shoah. I don’t think I’m obsessed either, just responding rationally to horror so absolute and terrifying so as to be truly indelible. Like so many of you, I’ve read so many books on the topic—the academic studies, the survivors’ memoirs, the philosophical interpretations—that I can’t even begin to guess how many different authors’ takes on the Shoah I’ve exposed myself to. When I think of German audiences guffawing at a funny Hitler, or applauding at sexy S.S. maidens dancing their way across Europe, I feel more than just queasy. Indeed, I feel as though we truly have turned a corner—away from decency to a level of moral degeneracy that would only decades ago have seemed inconceivable.

Nor am I making this up. This was in this morning’s Daily Telegraph, a London newspaper you can find on-line at : “’Should one be allowed to laugh about Hitler?’ asked the daily Berliner Morgenpost. And the answer, ringing out from every stall on Friday night, was an affirmative yes. Moreover, Hitler received a standing ovation and some audience members even waved parody Nazi flags bearing wurst instead of swastikas.” Yes, I understand that the whole Springtime for Hitler show-within-a-show is supposed to be in such indescribably poor taste that it’s guaranteed to fail. But, speaking honestly, isn’t that plot device just a fig leaf invented specifically to justify the concept of funny Nazis tapping their way across the stage? What do you think? When the audience in Berlin was laughing its sides off, were they laughing at Bialystok and Bloom, the producers in The Producers, or were they laughing at the funny Führer and his dancing Wehrmacht?

If Ethel Katz, the survivor whose recollection of the murder of her father, sister, and twin brothers I wrote about a few weeks ago, had been present in the audience, would they still have laughed out loud at funny Hitler? I know they would have! But, of course, what does it matter that Ethel wasn’t personally present in the Admiralspalast the other night when The Producers opened? She, and countless other survivors, live on in this world as living, breathing reminders of the depth of moral depravity to which the world once sank and could conceivably sink again. And they are not laughing—not at Hitler and not at the S.S., and not at any of the events of the Second World War, both those that specifically concerned the murder of our people and those only related to the Holocaust tangentially.

I’m with them. Mel Brooks is a funny guy. The Producers is a funny show. But the fig leaf is, I think, just what I said it is: a flimsy plot device intended to pull the rug of moral outrage out from under the naysayers in advance. And I can’t countenance telling jokes about the murderers of our people—and of so many countless other people, millions upon millions in their own right—that the jokesters would hesitate to tell to the people being rounded up for deportation to the camps. If those people—our kedoshim who died as martyrs at the hands of fiends so diabolical as for there almost to be no way to describe the depths of their depravity in human language—if those people wouldn’t have laughed, then how can any of us?

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