On my daily S-Bahn journey through central Berlin, the train stops near a 1920s building draped in unmistakable red banners, each with white circles and black insignia. But momentary horror quickly turns to laughter: the black insignia in the white circle is a pretzel. The feeling I sometimes get here, that 20th-century ghosts hover for ever just around the street corner, subsides to its usual low-level hum, and the train moves on.
The building is the Admiralspalast theatre, where the first German-language production of The Producers opens this month. The musical, adapted in 2001 from the 1968 film, centres around a Broadway producer who, for financial reasons, aims to stage a play so offensive that it’s bound to fail. Instead, Springtime for Hitler, with its tap-dancing storm troopers, becomes a so-bad-it’s-good success. The musical has been performed around the world, from Broadway to Tel Aviv, and was made into a film in 2005. Berlin, however, remains an understandably problematic setting. For instance, it is illegal to display swastikas in public in Germany: hence the giant pretzels.
But Mel Brooks’s drama fits well in a city that often addresses its past through Soviet kitsch or “ostalgie” for East German communism. The 2003 film Goodbye Lenin!, in which a young man goes to comic lengths to hide from his sick mother the news that the Berlin Wall has fallen, showed that the country’s communist past could be addressed in a light manner which acknowledged the everyday happinesses people managed to carve out in difficult times.
But it is harder for Germany to touch the Nazis through irony, and the shift from 1968 film to 2001 musical had already added a new discomfort for viewers of The Producers. The 1968 film depicts a stunned audience watching the Hitler musical. After it was adapted for stage, the viewers became the Springtime for Hitler audience, both in on the joke and, at the same time, immediately reacting to songs celebrating the Nazis. Further, for the Berlin production, the stage-Hitler will sing “Heil to me, I’m the Kraut who’s going to change history” only a few metres from the “Führer’s box”, the real Hitler’s preferred seat.
I asked one Berliner whether he found it offensive. “Of course, the depiction of gay actors in The Producers is clearly homophobic,” he said. It’s this kind of response I think about on the S-Bahn: how the capital of the Third Reich has become one of the most tolerant of metropolises – and whether that’s enough to stop the feeling that 20th-century ghosts might still be hiding here somewhere, behind the art and humour.