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Arts & Culture German Comedy About Nazis: a Breakthrough or Tasteless?

November 22, 2002
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A movie billed as Germany’s first homegrown Nazi comedy has premiered here on television amid doubts that Germans are ready to laugh at their past.

“I heard about a questionnaire that said 70 percent of Germans feel they must not laugh about the Nazis,” Peter Steinbach, who wrote “Goebbels and Geduldig,” told JTA before Thursday’s broadcast. “That was very shocking.”

The 64-year-old screenwriter, known for his 1998 adaptation of the wartime diaries of Victor Klemperer, said humor about Nazism “would be no problem in America, in England — even in France or Italy.”

But “in Germany,” he added, ” I am not sure if we are ready.”

The film aired here nationally during prime time on the respected ARD TV channel. The conservative daily Die Welt newspaper said the comedy may deserve plaudits for trying to break new ground, but that it failed for a simple reason.

It isn’t funny.

Not everyone echoes that criticism, though. “Goebbels and Geduldig” won a bronze medal for best screenplay and silver for best director at the 2001 New York Film Festival.

Geduldig is imprisoned and — in some hilarious scenes — forced to practice acting and sounding like the bombastic Goebbels. It is all part of Heinrich Himmler’s plan to do away with the real propaganda minister.

In a scene reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” the real Goebbels confronts his double and launches into an exaggerated speech about the threat of “die Juden.”

Comic moments outweigh tragedy in the film. The Nazis appear nearly as ridiculous as in the American TV series “Hogan’s Heroes,” which was also successful in Germany.

In contrast, the Jewish characters appear more rounded: comic, tragic and always sympathetic.

The aim seems to be to make people laugh at the Nazis and sympathize with their victims, without being depressing. In Germany, where it is taboo to joke about the Nazi period or about Jews, that is no easy task.

But it is high time, said Steinbach, that Germans need to be jolted into looking at its past anew.

“I am tired of the political correctness in this land,” he told JTA. “People don’t want to hear about” Nazism, “they are fed up. In my opinion, you have to tell it in another way.”

Steinbach’s view reflects a common complaint here that Germans are forced to accept continued collective guilt for the Holocaust.

Jewish leaders pointedly emphasize that Germans inherit the responsibility to remember, rather than feel guilty for the Holocaust. But some Germans mask real anti-Semitism with claims that they’re angry because Jews still admonish them for Nazism.

“Many younger people say they are tired of the whole, sad story,” said film editor Bettina Riklifs, who is in her mid-30s. “We wanted to use humor to try to reach people and hold their interest.”

But is that appropriate? Sometimes it works, but not in Germany, said film critic Jessica Jacoby, who reviewed “Goebbels and Geduldig” for the German Jewish newspaper the Judische Allgemeine.

Unlike Roberto Begnini’s 1999 Academy Award-winning film “Life Is Beautiful,” which used humor “to transcend, not to deny, a horrible reality,” Steinbach’s film, with its “dumb and harmless Nazis” and a Jewish hero who has to become a Nazi to rescue his love, “is not funny, just tasteless,” Jacoby wrote.

Yet Steinbach said he did not want humor to mask Nazis brutality. Before creating his characters, he interviewed a former concentration camp guard to “find out what happened in one’s soul in such a place.”

“I asked him, ‘Did you have any pity for the people who were being mistreated there?’ And he said, ‘I had pity for myself. I was convinced that I had to do this. I had to overcome my hesitations.’

“It was unbelievable. He had beaten people, kicked them and harassed them. And he only felt sorry for himself.”

Steinbach also modeled the Jewish characters after Holocaust survivors he has known.

“It made me angry that only the prominent victims are recognized, but the little stories, the ones that ended in the gas chambers, no one speaks about them.”

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