Are Nazis still funny? Were they ever? Maybe they are — after all, directors like Lubitsch and Chaplin crafted masterpieces by mocking Nazi conformity. Mel Brooks seems to think so, too — he thanked Hitler “for being such a funny guy” when his musical The Producers received a record 12 Tony awards. Now a remake of The Producers, arriving at the end of the year, becomes the latest cinematic attempt to mine comedic gold from ultimate evil. While its roots go back to the original film, the new model is based to a greater extent, in structure and its cast, on the Broadway version, still cleaning up at the box office four years after its debut. So don’t hold out hope for a contemporary take on The Producer’s lowbrow brilliance. Whereas Brooks’ 1968 original — about two Broadway hacks who plan to swindle their investors by creating a guaranteed flop from a pro-National Socialist script, Springtime for Hitler — was a watershed in tasteless, taboo-smashing humor, the premise is more safe than satirical in post-Life Is Beautiful 2005.
Since ’68, Nazi imagery has been rendered completely harmless at the movies, ignorantly celebrated in the Triumph of the Will homage from Return of the Jedi and dismissed as uplifting background for the syrupy non-humor of Benigni and his whitewashed depictions of concentration camps. Sontag once observed that our democratic society harbored strange obsessions with “fascinating fascism” as the realities of Nazi Germany became increasingly abstract and relegated to history. The Broadway version of Brooks’ classic is case in point: its musical numbers draw The Producers closer to the rousing, over-the-top aesthetic of Springtime for Hitler, which is then, in a terrible irony, rendered family-friendly (albeit lascivious and stereotype-laden) by the palatable, well-worn tropes of Catskills-era Jewish humor — Brooks’ irony collapses upon itself. Meanwhile, the instant comedic payoff of human cruelty colliding with unabashed entertainment has run its course — there was really nowhere left to go after Satan and Saddam Hussein copulated, belted show tunes, and sensitively expressed their feelings for one another in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.
Brooks has calculated shrewdly. He reworked his best film as a blockbuster musical to sell back to audiences their own self-congratulatory sense of irreverence. If the film “remake” — or whatever you want to call it — is to be as ahead of the curve and funny as the original, then the material would have to be updated in order to splinter the taboos of the present rather than the comfortable caricatures of the past. How can anybody expect this Producers remake to be anything other than a cash-in if the audience is treated as unthinking and servile as the fictional one that applauds Springtime For Hitler?