Somehow, at the Berlin International Film Festival there never fails to be a film on a subject that deals with the Nazi period.
This year, one of the most intriguing is "My Best Enemy," starring German actor Moritz Bleibtreu, 39, as a Jew in Vienna — Victor Kaufmann — who turns the tables on a Nazi functionary who happens to be an old family friend.
In an interview, director Wolfgang Murnberger, 50, said this was the first Austrian film to treat a Holocaust theme with humor. And laugh the audience did — at the right moments, Murnberger stressed.
The film, which is featured in the festival but not up for a prize, is not a barrel of laughs.
More like Roberto Benigni’s 1999 Academy Award-winning film "Life is Beautiful," this film takes tragic realities — the disenfranchisement and murder of Austrian Jewry, and the ease with which some Austrians abandoned morality in their lust for power — and throws in some farcical situations: The relationship between Hitler and Mussolini depends on the confiscation of a Michelangelo drawing owned by a Jewish gallerist. The gallerist has a couple of forgeries made, and though he is killed, his forgeries keep on popping up at the right moment, granting one reprieve after another to the surviving son, Victor Kaufmann, played brilliantly by Bleibtreu.
The central farce comes as Kaufmann is betrayed by an old family friend, Rudi Smekal (also a fine job by actor Georg Friedrich) now an aspiring Nazi officer. Ultimately, Kaufmann turns the tables on his friend: The two change roles, and Kaufmann escapes the concentration camp in Smekal’s proud Nazi uniform while Smekal is mistaken for a lowly Jew.
Perhaps Bleibtreu’s good job here will counteract his poor choice to play Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in the ill-fated 2010 flick, "Jew Suss: Rise and Fall," directed by Oskar Roehler. Though Bleibtreu did a good job himself, the film was panned.
There are a few "Hogan’s Heroes" moments in the film, particularly when one Nazi officer suspects he’s been hoodwinked and wonders aloud, "Maybe I really am an idiot?"
The audience gave the line the laughs it deserved. Which supports the idea that German-speaking audiences are well-primed for comedy on such themes, having seen Swiss director Dani Levy’s comedy in 2007, "Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler," and in the 2002 film "Goebbels and Geduldig," a farce about a Jew who is trained to be Goebbel’s security double — which was billed as Germany’s first comic feature film dealing with Nazis and Jews (directed by Kai Wessel and written by Peter Steinbach).
Several twists and turns occur before the final denoument, and a happy ending ensures the label of tragicomedy.
"But many scenes could also have been in a serious film," said Murnberger, whose said his parents and grandparents were Nazis. His father was a Wehrmacht soldier. "I wanted to take the emotions seriously. I did not want the Nazi figures to be like wooden puppets."
In most films he had seen, "Nazis were always the bad guys and Jews were always victims," Murnberger said in the interview. "I wanted to show that a Jew can be a hero, and not only a gaunt prisoner behind barbed wire."
He also wanted to show how the Smekal character "was enthused by his uniform. He joins the SS because it is a career move; not because he wants to kill."
But Murnberger is well aware that the very notion of escape from a concentration camp is absurd. And though he feels that Austrian audiences are ready for some humor related to this history, he recognizes the irony of the fact that "there are still millionaires in Austria who got rich because they took the artwork belonging to Jews.
"I would have to make another film, if I wanted to get into the aspect of how Austrians deal with that," he said.
The screenplay is by Paul Hengge, 77, author of "Europa, Europa," based on the life Solomon Perel, a Jew who escaped persecution by adopting the guise of a Nazi.
The Berlinale ends on Sunday, with the awarding of prizes in several categories. There are several Israeli films up for prizes, including "Odem," by director Jonathan Sagall, which is in the running for the top prize, the Golden Bear.