Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Dani Levy does Hitler: MY FÜHRER opens in a very limited theatrical run

Anyone who saw the very funny and appealing German/
Jewish family comedy Go for Zucker (2004) will probably want to see what its director/co-writer Dani Levy (shown below) can do with a comedy about Adolph Hitler. The opportunity is now here, as Herr Levy's unusual film, made in 2007, has arrived at last. The press materials refer to

MY FÜHRER as "the bastard love child of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator and Mel Brooks' The Producers." To which I might add George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told, Nazi-style.

My (and Shakespeare's) point is that comparisons are odious. Expect neither the amazing inspiration of Chaplin, the all-out zaniness of Brooks, nor even the placid pageantry found in Mr. Stevens' retelling of an apocryphal tale. While there is a good deal of inspiration, humor and even pageantry to Levy's odd mix, there is also satire and irony aplenty. Topping it off is the tone: rueful, a little suspicious and above all humane. Set toward the end of WWII, My Führer posits that, with Berlin half in ruins, only a new and energizing speech from Hitler might turn the tide and placate the country. Unfortunately, Adolf is depressed and in terrible shape. Might Germany's greatest acting coach be able to solve this situation? Unfortunately, he's Jewish and he and the family are vacationing at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

From this somewhat manipulated premise comes a movie that, in its 89-minute running time, packs in quite a lot of provocative ideas. Hitler, wonderfully played by Helge Schneider (shown above), is not only a monster but a very human -- and funny -- one. The drama coach and professor, Adolf Grünbaum (a final, major, terrific performance from Ulrich Mühe, shown below, who starred in The Lives of Others and met an untimely death at age 54 just two years ago) is a pacifist -- much to the dismay of his wife and children, who urge him to kill the little dictator ASAP, no matter what might happen to all of them.

Levy keeps us and his characters off-balance much of the time, which is all to the good, and he has some interesting takes on Hitler's underlings -- from Goebbels and Himmler to Bormann and Speer. As the plot unfolds, we wonder how the writer/director will bring us home for his feel-good ending. Wait: How can we have a feel-good ending where Herr Hitler and the Holocaust are concerned? Levy is aware of this, and a lot more, and he guides his movie rather well between the Scylla and Charybdis of negativity and sentimentality. What is collaboration, he asks, and when, if ever, is it "OK"? His answer is not a pretty one, but it's not a stupid one, either. And his film, if not great -- not funny, smart, stylish enough -- is still very good. It's like nothing else I've seen on this much-used-and-abused subject, and for that alone, My Führer is memorable.

First Run Features is to be congratulated for taking a chance on this unusual film, which opens Friday, August 14, at New York City's Quad Cinema. Further playdates can be found here.

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