Those Hilarious Nazis

Thane Rosenbaum is the author of "Second Hand Smoke," "Elijah Visible" and the forthcoming, "The Golems of Gotham."

The thing all prophets have in common is that, generally, they don’t want the job. But because true prophets often come disguised as something else, we hardly ever see them coming and are never sure whether to take them seriously.

Sometimes they’re found howling at the moon, at other moments mumbling to themselves. On much rarer occasions, they make a feature film that only years later is understood for its prophetic insights about popular culture and cultural memory.

With the recent announcement of the Tony Award nominations, there is reason to take a critical look at Mel Brooks and perhaps his most provocative artistic creation, “The Producers”--both the musical, which received a record-breaking 15 Tony nominations, including best musical, and the 1968 feature film of the same name, which earned him an Academy Award for best original screenplay.


From the perspective of late-1960s audiences, surely no other subject matter could have been less suitable for farce and satire than the Holocaust--a term rarely in use at the time. (Indeed, much of the scholarship, literature and art about the Holocaust was only then being written and created.)

“The Producers” revolves around a plot by a has-been Broadway producer, Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane in the musical), who bilks wealthy old widows out of their retirement money to finance his flops. When accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) visits Bialystock to go over his books, Max gets a brilliant idea: If he could raise as much money as possible and produce a sure-fire flop, then he could pocket the unused money and flee to Rio. They opt for a show that is certain to offend people of all races, creeds and religions. But the production they choose, “Springtime for Hitler,” instead becomes an instant success.

At the time of the film, the world was still very much in shock over the genocide of European Jews. Twenty years after the end of World War II, Hitler was a man whose name still evoked disgust and revulsion. The presumption that Brooks’ two fictional producers made about the taste and moral sensibilities of modern audiences seemed on target: a campy Broadway musical titled “Springtime for Hitler” would no doubt be considered vulgar, crude and objectionable as entertainment. Surely no one would pay to see it.

But in both the film and now the musical, “Springtime for Hitler” turns out to be a smash hit, shocking not the audiences but its producers. How could these shrewd producers have miscalculated so badly?

Bialystock and Bloom never counted on how the entertainment establishment, a feckless public and the presumed autonomy of the artistic license sometimes all operate without human conscience or moral boundaries. The producers discover that in the modern world, even atrocity is fair game for farce.

Brooks, meanwhile, was ultimately more right than even he imagined. We live in a time when audiences have increasingly become desensitized to shock. When “The Producers” arrived in movie theaters in 1968, it was neither a commercial nor a critical success. Audiences reacted in very much the way that Bialystock and Bloom would have predicted--with a measure of disbelief and revulsion. Indeed, Brooks anticipated what eventually came to pass: a shockless society in which audiences have seen it all, are bored by what they’ve already seen, and what they haven’t seen registers little, if any, surprise, or shame, at all.


For contemporary audiences, who are spoon-fed up-to-the-second visual images of atrocity, inundated with feature films that realistically depict all the unfiltered horrors of humanity, tantalized by Jerry Springer and his transformation of the once private into the shamelessly public, there is nothing either off-limits or too vulgar. The parameters of artistic liberties have changed, as well. There is more tolerance of, and greater appreciation for, sacrilege in art. And there is also the complete absence of humility and too much runaway hubris.

Moral conscience is not much of a safeguard anymore, either.

Brooks recognized that contemporary culture would eventually grow weary of the pieties surrounding the Holocaust. When the film first premiered, there was still profound sensitivities about Jewish genocide and the man responsible for its commission. But today, with the new musical, the moral climate has changed dramatically. Advance ticket sales are now running into April 2002, already generating $25 million in box-office receipts.

“The Producers” is not alone in putting the spotlight on Nazis. In recent years, Nazis have been all over Broadway--and not all of them can sing and dance. There were revivals of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Sound of Music” and “Cabaret” (still playing). Each was updated in ways that magnified the horror of the Nazis, a vast improvement over the original productions in which such details were treated more elliptically or trivialized altogether.

Also on Broadway recently, there are and have been “Judgment at Nuremberg,” “Race,” “I Will Bear Witness,” “The Gathering” and “The Gardens of Frau Hess.” It is somewhat ironic that “The Producers” is the only production in which life truly comes across as a cabaret. “Cabaret” may have singing and dancing, but in the end, there is nothing cheerful about the Nazis in that show. In fact, each of the other productions demonstrates the threat of the Nazis in ways that Brooks never has.

“The Producers” could very well end up the most successful show in Broadway history. And wouldn’t that be the greatest irony of all, since “Springtime for Hitler,” the musical within the musical, was produced specifically to close on opening night.

In fact, “The Producers” is not merely just a hit, the musical is also something of a phenomenon. So pumped up has been the praise that no one even bothers to question anymore whether the idea for a musical revolving around Hitler is crass. In the film, Bialystock and Bloom are certain that audiences will turn away--and initially they do. But today, on Broadway, the inside joke is that moral revulsion is only in the fictional minds of the producers themselves, and not in the heads of audiences. No patron lucky enough to see “The Producers” is likely to be seen making an early exit. And that’s not because of the $100 top ticket price; instead it’s because everyone is having far too good a time, bent over in laughter.

The audience couldn’t care less whether the demonic specter of Hitler has been domesticated into a harmlessly trivial gay romp. As long as it’s funny, as long as we’re getting our money’s worth.

Of course, Brooks is standing on more solid ground nowadays than the sacred Mt. Sinai soil that once grounded any artistic Holocaust endeavor. The 20th century German philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote: “No poetry after Auschwitz,” which has been interpreted to mean that it is vulgar to make art out of the ashes of Auschwitz. A catastrophe of that scale requires piety, not poetry. For many years, filmmakers and playwrights held fast to the principle that Holocaust art should be emotionally respectful and historically authentic. Comedies and farce were generally forbidden.

The standards were more relaxed when it came to the post-Holocaust world, meaning that art reflecting the historical period between 1939 and 1945 was treated more piously than the period that came after, when there was always more room for boldness and creative experimentation.

“There are fascinating antecedents for ‘The Producers,’ namely two controversial black comedies of the early 1940s, [Charlie] Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’ and [Ernst] Lubitsch’s ‘To Be or Not to Be,’ ” said Annette Insdorf, professor and director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University and author of “Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust.” “Both were deemed in bad taste but turned out to be refreshingly sharp deflations of Nazism.”

Taken in that spirit, Brooks was perhaps more serious than we assumed--as both a filmmaker and a visionary regarding the Holocaust. After all, he was the producer of “The Elephant Man” (1980), and he updated and starred in “To Be or Not to Be” (1983), proving that even after he made “The Producers,” he was still obsessed with putting Nazism up on the silver screen, but filtering it through the miniaturizing lens of farce and black comedy.

“There’s something immensely liberating about humor and even bad taste on a forbidding subject, something everyone else has rightly been solemn about,” said Morris Dickstein, a professor of literature and film at the City University of New York Graduate Center. “Black humor--the sense that some things in life are so absurd, so hard to believe, that it’s a huge relief to joke about them--was the coin of the realm of the 1960s. The Holocaust was not funny, but Hitler and company certainly were.”

In comparing the two productions, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the film had a much darker, smarter edge to it than the musical, which is actually funnier, campier and more gay than the original. In fact, one of the more outrageous songs in “The Producers” is “Keep It Gay.” While the sexual orientation of this number is in no way concealed, neither is the sharp commentary on contemporary culture: on Broadway--or wherever audiences are there to be entertained--it’s important to always keep the material light, even when what Hitler was actually peddling was darkness and death.

What exactly did Brooks have in mind when he first conceived “The Producers?” (He declined to be interviewed for this article.) Was he just a clown, or was the joke on us? He knew that one day art, commerce and atrocity would conspire to diminish the crimes of the Nazis by turning them into money-making entertainment.

But the fact about the Holocaust is that the Nazis meant business. Sure, decades later there is comfort in not taking them too seriously, in viewing them not with contempt or outrage but with laughter and forgetting. Doing so makes us all feel as if we live in a much safer world. But when the Von Trapps headed for Switzerland in “The Sound of Music,” they did so not entirely out of patriotism or principle, but because they knew the Swiss hills were alive with the sound of music, while the Austrian hills would soon echo with the sound of death.

We must hope that as “The Producers” continues to break Broadway records, it won’t, over time, redefine and shatter the memory of just who the Nazis really were. Brooks may have predicted that one day audiences would be unable to distinguish between, or even care about, theater that entertains and theater that offends. Desensitization is one thing, which is bad enough. But it’s doubtful he ever intended the much darker prophecy of cultural and historical amnesia, as well.