I’m starting to wonder if Mel Brooks’ movie-cum-musical "The Producers" will become a central text for Holocaust studies.
I recently saw the play when it came out to San Francisco, with Jason Alexander as Max Bialystock and Martin Short as Leo Bloom. I had heard of the unprecedented giddiness that had come over New York audiences when "The Producers" first opened two years ago, but I was unprepared for the collective emotional discharge from the audience. Despite the obvious number of Jews in the audience and the plethora of swastikas, people were swept away by the faux-Bavarian beer hall number "Der Guten Tog Hop Clop," and the lyrical, sophisticated showstopper "Springtime for Hitler." (For those living on the moon, the show is about a failed producer and repressed accountant hoping to make money off a failed musical about Hitler).
When the movie first came out in 1967, it earned Brooks an Academy Award for best screen play. There was some criticism of its jocular tone toward genocide, but there was little context for it, since the Holocaust had not yet become a popular subject for film and television, or for national discussion.
Brooks had said, regarding the movie and play, that by making fun of the Nazis one underscores their failure and our Jewish/American success. By laughing at them one wins a posthumous victory, as Emile Fackenheim said about Jews who observed their religion even after the Holocaust. Or as my colleague Steve Lipman, quoting a survivor, wrote in his very serious book "Laughter in Hell: The Use of Humor during the Holocaust": "The sight of a raging SS officer became less menacing as soon as one imagined him with his pants down or lying drunk in the mud." This sense of one-upping the Nazis must be part of "The Producers" liberating appeal.
Not long after seeing the play I picked up Frederic Spotts’ fascinating new book "Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics" (Overlook), which suggests that Hitler was essentially an artist who came into politics by accident, and whose obsession with culture was the foundation of his personality. In this view, becoming The Fuhrer was Hitler’s way of acquiring enough power, say, to design and build any museum or symphony hall he desired, or hire and fire musicians throughout Germany. Although the racism and hate was real and overwhelming, says Spotts, the pageant of the National Socialist state was part of its essence ó or, put another way, the medium was the message. Hitler, in the final analysis, saw himself as The Producer of the Third Reich.
Spotts, as he points out himself, is not the first to make this claim. Even during the war Thomas Mann and Walter Benjamin had described Hitler and fascism as having a fundamentally cultural character. And he is not alone today. The recent film "Max," about Hitler as a young painter, suggests that his desire to make his mark artistically was the primary drive in his life.
After reading Spotts’ analysis of Hitler’s lowbrow, kitschy taste, and in some cases shuddering through long passages of Hitler’s own words on the beauty of art and the German soul, I wondered if Brooks’ fantasia of a Nazi musical wasn’t more penetrating than I had first thought. Brooks creates an ex-Nazi and stand-in for Hitler, Franz Liebkind, who writes a musical about him in order to present the "real" Fuhrer, a man filled with joie de vivre instead of hate, portraying him in the cultural light he had always wanted to be seen in. Instead of the real Hitler pontificating on art, Brooks has his fake Hitler sing and dance: coarsely, boorishly, but compellingly nonetheless.
While Charlie Chaplin in "The Great Dictator," and Arthur Szyk in his wartime caricatures, turned The Fuhrer into something like this Liebkind, the real Hitler went on to hypnotize his country with what Spotts describes as unprecedented cultural magnetism. Laughing despite myself at Liebkind’s ironic Nazi lyrics, and then seeing Spotts’ photos of masses of Germans seduced by Hitler’s political song and dance, I wondered if the two characters weren’t just mirror images of one another. By understanding the comic, although still humorless, stage Hitler, perhaps we are better able to understand the evil, historical one. Mel Brooks is Frederick Spotts through the looking glass, and their strangely conjoined vision of Hitler as artist seems as compelling as any other.