Can Berliners laugh at Hitler? Mel Brooks thinks so

Can Berliners laugh at Hitler? Mel Brooks thinks soBerlin  - The curtain goes up May 15 on the Berlin adaptation of Mel Brooks' Broadway smash musical hit "The Producers" at a pre- war theatre which once sported box seats for the fuehrer - and critics will be listening to hear whether Germans can finally laugh at "you know who," at least for a limited two-month run.

Mel Brooks thinks they can. The 82-year-old king of in-your-face satire first came to Berlin as an American GI in 1945, clearing landmines from playgrounds "so Berlin kids wouldn't get blown to smithereens." He has returned over the years to promote his movies and has always had a special affection for Berlin.

He thinks most Berliners will laugh because "humour is the strongest weapon, especially black humour. And besides, it's silly watching Hitler singing and dancing," he told Tip Berlin magazine in an interview.

But he has no plans to attend the premiere at Berlin's Admirals Palast theatre, a venerable entertainment complex which not only used to have cafes, cabarets and a music hall with a box for the fuehrer. It also had a Turkish bathhouse which catered to travelers from Friedrich Strasse railway station across the street.

Between stage acts, gentlemen in white tie could slip off to the bathhouse and, for a gratuity to the towel boys, they would be led to peep holes where they could peer into the ladies changing rooms - and be back upstairs in time to rejoin their spouses for the next act.

"I think I'll skip the premiere," Brooks told the magazine. "I'd be afraid some schizo gunman would take potshots at me for defaming the fuehrer," he said, tongue firmly planted in cheek. "I might catch a show later on in the run."

"The Producers" is known in Germany as "Fruehling fuer Hitler" (Springtime for Hitler), taken from the title song composed by Brooks personally for the 1968 cult movie starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as two scheming Broadway producers who want to stage a flop so that they can fly off to Rio with the backers' money.

They intentionally choose the worst possible director, the worst possible actors and the worst possible play - "Springtime for Hitler or a Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden."

Naturally, the intended flop turns out to be a hit, just as the Broadway musical version of Brooks' movie turned out to be the biggest smash hit in Broadway musical history, winning a record 12 Tony awards and making millions at the box office. And it was remade as a movie starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.

In Germany, however, the Berlin Film Festival pointedly declined to select the Lane/Broderick film for screening three years ago, according to Berliner Morgenpost newspaper.

And when it finally opened nationwide, audiences stayed away in droves from the Lane/Broderick movie. Indeed, the original 1968 movie was never released theatrically in Germany. It is only rarely shown on German television, late at night for "mature" audiences.

German-language rights to the musical stage production were secured by the Stage Entertainment company years ago. But no house in Germany was daring enough to put it on, according to the Berlin paper. Instead, the German-language premiere was in Vienna, where the played to mixed reviews and somewhat lacklustre box-office revenues.

Pre-show publicity guaranteed sell-out audiences for the first few weeks at Vienna's Ronacher theatre after its premiere in June 2008, but attendance fell off rapidly and the show has been struggling for months.

So the Viennese run was cancelled prematurely and the show is coming to Berlin lock-stock-and-barrel with the original Austrian cast - who have contractual agreements which must be met by the producers for the final two months of the show's run. If the show simply closed, all the backers and actors would have to have been paid.

The irony is not lost on the producers of "The Producers."

"The Admirals Palast is the perfect venue," says Johannes Fiala, the Austrian troupe's artistic director. "It's the kind of theatre envisioned in the production. It has a certain, shall we say, patina. It's a bit down-at-the-heels here and there."

The show's Austrian star hopes Berliners will be able to laugh at Hitler more than his fellow Austrians could. In Vienna, audiences couldn't cope with poking fun at Nazism, says Cornelius Obonya, who plays Max Bialystok opposite Andy Bieber as accountant-cum-mogul Leopold Bloom.

"I'm Austrian and we didn't have the discussions that occurred in Germany over the decades after the war," he told a Berlin interviewer. "And you notice that in the theatre. I notice it when Andy Bieber and I haul out the swastika armbands. A little shudder goes through the audience."

So will "Springtime for Hitler" be a flop or a hit in Berlin?

"It's a great comedy, it's written by a Jew, and so any halfway intelligent person is going to realize it's substantial and there's more to it than just laughs," Obonya said.

"I think people in Vienna are just too complacent to get the point. Our hopes rest with the Berliners," he said. (dpa)