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Berlin takes in Mel Brooks comedy about Hitler

It has been a stressful few months for the man who decided to market Hitler in Berlin. But for the last several days, Falk Walter says he has enjoyed “the deepest sleep I’ve had for an age.”

The reason for his contentment is the swift box-office success of an in-your-face production of “The Producers” at his iconic Admiralspalast theater.

Walter, 45, had campaigned for the best part of a decade to be the first to stage the Mel Brooks musical comedy in what he himself refers to -- with more than a touch of irony -- as the Reichshauptstadt (capital of the Third Reich).

But despite the musical’s success around the world, no investors here wanted to touch what they regarded as just about the most tasteless show imaginable. Even the group that owned the performing rights considered it too risque to stage the number “Springtime for Hitler” in a theater once commandeered by the Nazis, complete with a “Fuehrer’s box.”

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“But for me, it hit all the right buttons,” Walter says over a Milchkaffee in the Italian restaurant adjoining the theater. “There was nothing at all that I thought wouldn’t work about it. Aesthetically, the costumes, the staging, the rhythm, the music, the dialogue, the jokes, its depth -- everything seemed to me to work brilliantly as a whole, as a way of reducing Hitler to the ridiculous figure he was.”

If Walter and his collaborators had doubts, they were answered “within the first quarter of an hour of curtain up as I saw how much the audience was lapping it up,” he says of the May 17 official opening night.

Initially scheduled for two months, the show has already been extended for a further four weeks into mid-August. Walter, a risk taker by reputation, readily refers to himself as “the man who unashamedly marketed Hitler” in the most unimaginable of sites.

“If you put it on in most other places then it’s a jolly musical about friendship and trust and good dancing and music, with this funny Nazi satire incidentally woven in,” he says. “But of course, if you put it on in Berlin, Hitler is the dominant theme.”

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Walter, a tousle-haired man with the svelte figure of a dancer, who wears tight jeans and a blue-gray shirt that matches the color of his eyes, recognized the risks of his endeavor.

“This is Germany. Things are restrictive. But you can make things happen,” he declares. “I went to the banks seeking support and they said: ‘No way. A Hitler musical? That’s not something we can support.’ ”

“Even when I quoted them the much-used Mel Brooks line: ‘I’m the first Jew to make money out of Hitler,’ they wouldn’t buy it.” So he tapped into the theater’s somewhat precarious cash flow. “I’ve never put so much on one horse,” he says.

Nor have many impresarios marketed their wares at such a full gallop. Walter sought what the Germans would call Flucht nach vorne -- running at the problem full on with a multilayered marketing campaign.

He sent transvestites dressed as Nazis to the Berlinale film festival in February to advertise the forthcoming show. Posters of a knock-kneed Hitler were festooned throughout the city, and banners bearing pretzels and sausages in place of swastikas hang from the theater courtyard like party bunting.

“I needed to excite people’s curiosity,” he says. “To get them to stop in the street.”

A complaint received by police about the banners (“Too reminiscent of Nazi paraphernalia,” wrote a group of worried citizens) has been reprinted in the program booklet, as has the Admiralspalast’s response: “We believe this is important for helping Germany to deal with its past.”

In a further touch of derring-do, there’s also a photo-montage of Hitler leaning over the balcony of the early 20th century theater where Nazi propaganda chief Goebbels had the box built for Hitler, from where he used to watch operettas.

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Walter, born in 1964 to loyal East Germans, his father a high-ranking soldier and his mother a teacher, has long been one to take chances.

“I might have weathered it, considered it normal like millions of others did, to spend my life in [communist East Germany], but then I fell in love with a Danish girl I met in a Budapest disco,” he says. “That changed my life.”

For days on end he’d wait on Friedrichstrasse, just outside the theater he now runs, hoping she would emerge from the so-called “Palace of Tears,” a crossing point between East and West Berlin. The torment was unbearable, so he made the decision at 19 to leave his birthplace. “It was unfathomable to me to have to tolerate a regime where my crime was to have fallen in love with a foreign girl,” he explains.

Walter departed on a visa to then-communist Mongolia and says he spent seven months on the road with a photographer friend, in part in the Gobi Desert, where they caught and cooked marmots to survive. (“You don’t want to know what else we ate,” he says with a smirk.)

“I thought, ‘This is a risk, but it’s a minimal one,’ ” he says. “If I was caught en route, no one could have accused me of fleeing to the West, because I was going deep, deep into the East.”

From Mongolia the pair headed to Beijing and presented themselves at the West German Embassy, where they applied for and were successful in getting citizenship of the Federal Republic.

Walter has since become one of Berlin’s most colorful characters, a maverick who will try his hand at almost anything. Playing with Tupperware boxes in his bathtub one night gave him the idea of using a converted tugboat to create a “bathing ship” -- a vessel turned into a swimming pool -- on the polluted River Spree. On the same site he has since turned a former bus depot into a major entertainment hub. And not content with only being able to operate the bathing ship in summer, in winter he encases it in a plastic skin and turns it into -- what else? -- a sauna.

“The authorities thought I was mad. But you learn not to take no for an answer when you know in your heart of hearts that something is a good idea and others will think so too,” he says.

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Four years ago he fought and saved the Admiralspalast from demolition, buying it with a group of like-minded people from the city for 1 million euros (now about $1.4 million). The first thing he did was tear out the Fuehrer’s box, “a monstrous affair.” He next plans to reinstate the rooftop salt-water spa that first drew the crowds in the 1920s during the Admiralspalast’s heyday as a 24-hour amusement temple.

Walter particularly enjoys the fact that the production now filling his theater has come to Berlin by way of Austria. “It’s quite fitting, don’t you think? The idiot did originally come from Austria after all.”

In Vienna, however, the Nazi theme, outside the theater at least, was almost completely suppressed -- and the production has enjoyed only moderate success.

The Austrians took a “Sachertorte” approach, he said, referring to the density and sweetness of the famous Viennese chocolate cake.

“With all due respect, they used the methods they always use,” he says, lifting a table-cloth and brushing imaginary crumbs under it as a way of describing Austria’s reluctance to examine its Nazi past. “They staged it as if it was a musical like any other, whereas I think in Berlin we’ve managed to go a whole step further and pull the monster from his throne.”

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Connolly is a special correspondent.


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