Springtime for Satire

Let’s talk about Hitler for a little bit.

No, no, not about going back in time and killing the baby version of him.  We can all agree that this is nice clean fun, and in terms of using it to retroactively secure our national security, Jeb Bush (pardon me, Jeb! Bush) seems to have the situation well in hand.  What I’m talking about here is not Hitler the man, or Hitler the dictator, or Hitler the efficient urban automobile pioneer; I’m referring to Hitler the punchline.

It’s a funny thing, being the most evil man in the history of the world.  Literally!  Much like his fictional counterpart, Satan, Hitler, not despite but because of being synonymous with unequalled horror and unrepentant violence and bloodshed, has come to be not only a shorthand for the worst person who ever lived, but also a go-to joke when you need something extreme to bounce an idea, concept, or comparison off of.  Although this apparently comes as news to some people, Hitler has been a subject of fun amongst his detractors for quite some time now; even when he still stalked this miserable Earth, people were making fun on him.  After the true scope of his terror was revealed following the war, he didn’t stop being funny; if anything, his elevation to a symbol instead of a mere man, to a metaphor for everything bad in the world, made him even easier to joke about.

Which brings us to The Producers.

I recently had a chance to watch the 2005 movie version of the 2001 musical based on the original 1968 film, which timeline is about five thousand times as much thought as I hoped to put into this review. Although it’s only ten years old, the movie seems like a relic of another era; it somehow comes across as more dated than the movie it was based on, and that’s older than I am.  Part of this is due to the fact that the involvement of the original story’s mastermind, Mel Brooks, was fairly minimal (his name in the credits is more of an honorific than anything, and he only appears in the film to deliver a too-little-too-late punchline).  But, just like World War II, if you leave Hitler out of it, you’re not telling the whole story.

When Brooks originally made The Producers, he was only 20 years removed from the end of the Second World War.  As a veteran of the U.S. Army (he was at the Battle of the Bulge) and a Jew, he was doubly equipped to appreciate the massive destruction Hitler brought into the world.  That’s reflected in the film (at one point, Bialystock and Bloom both discard and spit on the SS armbands given to them by Franz Liebkind — a scene that’s not critically, but perhaps tellingly, absent from the remake), but it doesn’t stop him from having great, delicious, boundless fun with the Nazis.  1968 was close enough to the atrocities of the war to make the very idea of a light, fluffy musical based on the life of Hitler truly outrageous to audiences, whether the fictional ones watching Springtime for Hitler or the actual ones watching the movie in which it appeared.  But it was also far enough away for Brooks to craft something that was simultaneously shocking and hilarious.

By 2001, when the musical was made, things had changed.  Laughing at the Nazis had become so de rigueur that there was no real shock to it; by the time it finished the first of its seven years on Broadway, we had new enemies and new super-villains.  By 2005, by the time the film hit the screen, Hitler had become more familiar to a generation of media consumers as “that guy on YouTube who gets super pissed about video games” than “that guy who presided over the greatest calamity of the 20th century”.  Making fun of Hitler was almost passé; even South Park seemed a little hokey when it conjured the image of Herr Schicklgruber.  The film had to toss its setting almost a whole decade back, to 1959, to make its premise seem scandalous, and even then, it came across as an odd combination of too timid (Springtime for Hitler set a high mark, but it’s been surpassed many times since then in the Nazi joke department) and too blasé (removing the part of Lorenzo St. Dubois makes the satire harder to sell, and casting the gregarious Will Ferrell as Liebkind ends up making the one actual Nazi in the story seem way too likable).  Hitler hasn’t gotten any less evil, but jokes about him have, and so the whole thing plays like what it is — a relic of an earlier time.

The Producers has plenty of other problems.  Nathan Lane, even ignoring the difficulty of accepting him as heterosexual enough to seduce an endless line of old ladies, comes across more peevish than angry, and it’s Zero Mostel’s boundless rage that sells the role in the original.  Matthew Broderick has settled nicely into playing a string of hapless nebbishes since his debut as cool-kid supreme Ferris Bueller, but he doesn’t possess the sheer neurotic terror that Gene Wilder brought to the role of Leo Bloom.  Uma Thurman is game as hell, and it’s gratifying to see Ulla given more depth and character than a mere smear of cheesecake, but putting her in an awkwardly jammed-in romance does nothing for the show.  The supporting cast has some very strong moments, but no one in it can match the stellar bit players of the 1968 version.  And while the remake scores points by making the women slightly less one-dimensional, gays don’t come across nearly as well; the camp celebration of “Make It Gay” is either offensively camp or depressingly corny, and neither is a good look.

In fact, while it might seem unfair to attack a musical for being a musical, the songs might be the biggest problem of all.  One of the advantages of the original film is that we didn’t get to see the entire Springtime for Hitler musical; we caught just enough snippets to get a sense of how truly awful it must have been.  In the musical and the remake, though, all the songs were, of necessity, performed in their entirety, and because they were featured in the framework of an actual musical, they couldn’t actually be bad.  They had to sound as good as the songs taking place outside of the play-within-a-play, and as a result, they ended up being too good to be shitty songs from a horrible musical that never should have been made, but too dull to be actually good, memorable songs form a strong Broadway show.  They also had to tread the painfully thin line between being hokey old-school musical comedy numbers and parodies of hokey old-school musical comedy numbers; based on the success of the likes of The Producers and Spamalot, there’s an audience for that sort of thing, but suffice to say I am not in its ranks.

There’s probably still a great satirical comedy about Adolf Hitler waiting to be made; I just don’t think the dated, overzealous movie version of The Producers, complete with bird puppets, is that comedy.  So until we finally get a wide release of The Day the Clown Cried, we’ll have to keep trying, knowing that the 1968 version was as close as we ever got.

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