Backstory: Take 'mein Führer'... please!

Germany has a new Adolf Hitler. But this one's not bent on world domination. Instead, he's a sniveling drug addict who plays with toy battleships and dresses his dog in SS regalia. He's also depressed that he can't do much but mope around the chancellery as his empire crumbles.

In a last-ditch effort to rally the nation, his propaganda minister plans a New Year's Day speech and pulls a Jewish actor from a concentration camp to coach Hitler back into crowd-rousing shape.

The antics of this unlikely duo are the focus of the new German film "Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler." It first invaded German theaters last Thursday, but the media here have been buzzing about it for months: Are Germans ready to laugh about Hitler, they wondered, or are the wounds still too deep? After all, no major German movie production had ever dared poke fun at Hitler, and some pundits predicted the film would cause an uproar.

But since the movie hit theaters, few have complained that Jewish director, Dani Levy, went too far by portraying Hitler as a bed-wetter or showing him barking like a dog. Instead, critics have grumbled that he didn't go far enough.

" 'Mein Führer' is – maybe the worst thing one can say about a comedy – too harmless," wrote Peter Zander of the daily Die Welt.

The film topped German box-office charts this week. And whether that was because it was actually funny or just a cultural anomaly is debatable.

With all the controversy, the film topped German box-office charts this week. But while some of its slapstick antics drew giggles – like the scene in which Hitler's stylist accidentally shaves off half his mustache right before he's supposed to go on stage – moviegoers, too, complain that the humor is heavy handed and clichéd.

Even "Mein Führer's" star, Helge Schneider – a zany comic known for madcap musical performances (his most popular ditty is about litter boxes) – has griped that the film is "boring," and suggested the director watered the final version down.

The blasé reception is a sign of how quickly taboos are shifting here. Just a few years ago, painting Germany's biggest villain as comical was almost unthinkable in Germany. But Hitler humor is now cropping up in many forms. Earlier this year, Hamburg's main theater staged a musical comedy set in his bunker. It got standing ovations and mostly rave reviews. Another play featuring the Führer as a Turkish patriarch, has been playing for months in Cologne.

A handful of stand-up comics have also started working Hitler into their routines. And the popular cartoonist Walter Moers recently released his third volume of Führer comic strips; all three have been national best sellers.

"We've finally gotten to the point where you can joke about Hitler without people saying, 'Oh my God! The H-word has been mentioned!" says John Doyle, an American-born comedian who has worked in the German comedy scene for a decade. "You might say it's a coming of age."

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The history of Hitler humor in post-World War II Germany might be traced to the day in 1996 when Turkish-born comedian Serdar Somuncu, decided to get a copy of Hitler's "Mein Kampf."

At first, just holding the book made him break into a sweat. Even owning it in Germany is a crime. Then he started reading it and, to his surprise, found himself laughing at the clumsy writing and absurd logic. "I wanted to reach people and tell them how ridiculous the ideology really is," he recalls.

So he turned "Mein Kampf" into a rambling comedy routine. Much of the humor turns on mocking Hitler's Bavarian slang, his growling, guttural speech, and his quirky logic – like the passage where he compares Aryans to cars and other races to horses. This meant petitioning the government to waive its "Mein Kampf" ban – part of a law that also bars Nazi symbols and propaganda.

At first, few people turned up at his shows. Then, in the late 1990s, a wave of neo-Nazi fervor swept Germany's ragged east. This prompted a lot of soul-searching by ordinary Germans, and Mr. Somuncu's work gained some media attention. By 2000, crowds at his performances were spilling into the streets, and death threats started pouring in from neo-Nazis outraged that a Turk would dare ridicule their leader. Skinheads often burst in on his show with "Sieg Heil!" salutes. At one point, Somuncu was forced to wear a bulletproof vest on stage.

Around this time, a few bold comics and artists began to follow his lead despite conventional wisdom that even touching Hitler could endanger their careers. Some remain skeptical of Nazi humor. "It's a topic that doesn't bring you any further," says Achim Rohde, who organizes the Cologne Comedy Festival, Germany's biggest live comedy event. "We don't do it and we never will."

But a growing number of comedians are taking the Hitler plunge. Many, like Somuncu, say they are reacting to the way Hitler is normally portrayed in Germany – as pure, larger-than-life evil.

"Comedy deflates this historical giant," says Moritz Netenjakob, who plays Hitler in the Cologne production, "My Big Fat Turkish Family."

And what better way to cut the Führer down to size than by showing him sitting on the toilet or fumbling in bed? What's more, this kind of bawdy slapstick tickles German audiences because they aren't used to seeing Hitler get cheeky treatment.

Many comedians also play on the discomfort Germans feel about banned Nazi symbols. In "Mein Führer," swastikas adorn everything from the official hairstylist's smock to the Christmas trees.

A few artists also use Hitler humor to poke fun at modern Germany. Last June, when Germany was hosting the soccer World Cup, director Erik Gedeon staged a production mocking national hopes pinned to the event. The play, called "Mein Ball," begins with Hitler and his cronies huddled in the Führer's bunker preparing for suicide. Then suddenly Hitler hits on a scheme to save his empire from ruin: "Germany should be football world champion!" The idea moves them to burst into a Broadway-style Elvis Presley medley, with a hip-swiveling Hitler belting out "Blue Suede Shoes."

Such scenes still have the power to offend. "Mein Ball" had some theatergoers in stitches, but others stomped out or booed. Similarly, stand-up comics say Hitler gags can be an easy way to lose the room.

Many Germans, especially the elderly, feel this brand of wit is cause for alarm.

"The danger is that the whole picture of the Third Reich becomes more and more blurred, and the horror gets lost," says Gertrud Koch, a cinema studies professor at the Free University of Berlin.

But among younger Germans, Hitler humor is the rage. Mr. Moers's new comic book, "Der Bonker," which shows Hitler talking jive with Prince and snorting cocaine with Mahatma Gandhi, is a hit. It's companion DVD features a cartoon Führer sitting on the toilet grumbling about Winston Churchill. The video has been posted on YouTube and viewed more than 4 million times.

But comedians aren't the only ones who are rethinking Hitler. In recent years, a number of German books and films have begun plumbing his humanity – among them the 2004 movie "The Downfall," which offered a close-up look at his anguished last days. In his recent book, renowned historian Götz Aly explores the Führer's role in building Germany's social programs. And some predict Hitler will keep taking new forms.

"He will keep popping up – in books, in movies, in humor," says Somuncu. "Without Hitler, there is no Germany."

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