From the May 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 5)


Hitler for Children

Mario Vargas Llosa, El País (liberal), Madrid, Spain, March 4, 2002

Matthew Broderick in The Producers (Photo: Paul Kolnick)
In order to see The Producers, the biggest hit on Broadway, you either have to wait three months or go to scalpers who charge four times more than the ticket price. The musical by Mel Brooks, the co-author of the script and writer of both the music and lyrics of the songs, is directed by Susan Stroman, who also did the choreography, and is an adaptation of the film Brooks wrote and directed in 1968.

The movie had the same title and starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. It did win some awards, but it was not very successful at the box office, and there is no doubt that anyone who sees both the stage and film versions will find the theatrical production more daring, funny, original, and brilliant. And it more than justifies all the enthusiasm it has aroused.

The play tells the story of two shameless theatrical producers who decide to create a flop on Broadway in order to steal the money of the naive women who finance their productions. To make sure that the play fails, they pick the worst script in the world, hand it over to the most incompetent director they know, and hire a ridiculous leading man. The play they choose, Springtime for Hitler, is a hagiographic approach to Nazism, written by Franz Liebkind, a lunatic admirer
of Hitler.

Contrary to all their expectations, however, the play is a runaway hit, and the two fraudsters—Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom—end up behind bars in Sing Sing. Of course, the two producers take advantage of their time in the slammer to write another Broadway hit.

I want to begin by stating that the play is a pure delight from start to finish due to its supple, graceful dialogue, which sparkles with ironies, gags, and surprises, as well as the beauty and variety of the songs and the perfection of the many dance numbers. The entire production is a masterpiece of talent, professionalism, and efficacy.

The two principals, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, sing and dance as well as they act and preside over a witches’ sabbath of histrionics in which costumes and scenes change according to a delirious rhythm, creating the illusion of a grotesque world in which nothing is either stable or respectable, because every character and every action always ends up as simply a caricature of itself.

Everything is designed to provoke laughter and a contradictory sentiment, benevolent disdain. This is a farce with touches of genius. It is impossible to tear your eyes from what transpires on the stage, and even though I do not like musicals, I found myself repeatedly rising out of my seat to clap and cheer.

The play’s climax, of course, comes when it presents the scene from Springtime for Hitler in which the affected and effeminate Führer, surrounded by long-legged Valkyrian blondes with swastika armbands, sings and dances at the top of a Hollywood staircase. The number is “Heil Myself, Heil to Me!” The audience collapses in laughter, and the theater resounds with a barrage of applause.

Is it mean-spirited and stupid to look for buts about a play this entertaining after having enjoyed, for three hours, such an effervescent illusion? Perhaps. But, in any case, it is worth mentioning that, beyond lavishly gratifying the senses and spirits of the audience, The Producers also in some way sets them up to disarm the ethical scruples that they may still possess, demonstrating that what may be, in our times, the last taboo—Hitler and Nazism, responsible for World War II and the Holocaust, which killed 6 million Jews—can be transformed into a product manufactured for mass consumption, designed to sate the hunger for entertainment and amusement, the most serious and widely shared passion of our times.

Because in The Producers, unlike in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, whose humor is undermined by fierce and virulent criticism, the aim of the piece—which it certainly accomplishes brilliantly—is to amuse and entertain the audience, and no more than that. Of course, that is a great deal itself. I would be the first to celebrate the great talent of Mel Brooks. And I believe that the banalization of the theme of Hitler that the play also represents is merely one particular manifestation of a much more general phenomenon: postmodernism.

Postmodernism represents the collapse of all traditional values in a world where culture is under the sacrosanct tyranny of frivolity, with that being the supreme and perhaps only value that no one questions today, at the dawn of the third millennium. Postmodernism is not in conflict with artistic originality or with literary or dramatic genius, after all, but instead with any aspiration of making arts and letters more than a source of pleasure and dreams—a stimulus to reflection and intellectual criticism, a nonpassive way to confront human problems, and an incitement of the imagination and sensibility to transcend the most obvious things and seek out hidden truths.

Enjoy oneself, surprise oneself, have a good time, then fall asleep without having had to put one’s intelligence or imagination to too much work, and, above all, use the images created by this stupefying entertainment to distance oneself from any responsibility—this is what movie and theater audiences and book buyers are increasingly demanding. And it is what films, plays, and novels are providing.

There are many theories to explain this dominant tendency of our civilization. More than any other, there is deconstructionism, according to which the images and ideas that constitute culture are deconstructed. Instead of discovering the profound truths of human reality, deconstruction dismantles them and reveals them to be illusions. Because words, images, and ideas, instead of referring to life, to the concrete experiences of living beings, refer only to other words, images, and ideas in a labyrinthine game of mirrors.

This is a self-sufficient world in which it is not just pretentious but futile to seek explications of the world, of human relations, of individual destinies. Just as oil and water do not mix, neither do art and life: They are separate and sovereign dominions that coexist without mixing, each with its own idiosyncrasies, values, and morality. If this is art, then anything is permitted except for boring the audience. Its only moral obligation is to distract them, get them caught up in a game that, the more irresponsible it is, the better it works. This is art, therefore, without the subjections, servitudes, and choices of which any human life is composed.

In The Producers, Hitler is neither more evil nor more pernicious than the Broadway bons vivants who get up on the tables to sing, flanked by SS in miniskirts and daring décolletage, goose-stepping away. He is simply more clownlike and ridiculous than they are and, therefore, more entertaining. His role, compared to those of Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, is much shorter and more intense. But if Hitler’s part were as long as theirs, then he would be the hero of the show, and he would garner the most applause.

Do these observations mean that we are forbidden to enjoy ourselves? That we ought to revive taboos on certain themes, and that literature and drama ought to be limited to serious topics in order to be seen as sober and respectable? No. It means that the art and fiction of our day that intends to carry on the work undertaken by the classics, the old masters—that of helping readers and spectators to understand, of embodying in stories and images the fantasies of an era, of alerting people to the sources of their misfortune and frustration—will become increasingly relegated to the margins of social life, to be replaced by what [Peruvian surrealist poet] César Moro calls stupefacient art, shows and works of fiction that are immensely entertaining and brilliant, yet at heart, are escapist and cynical.

Because only when one has reached the sad conclusion that this world will never be better or different can one decide that the only thing that makes sense is to find some way to sneak away from life and get drunk on entertaining lies, which never—unlike real art—lead to any truth.

Humor and playfulness are not in conflict with great art; rather, they are often its main ingredients. Don Quixote is a proud humorous novel, and on the stage, just like Shakespeare, Molière played, enjoyed himself, and made his audiences laugh unto tears with jokes and ironies that, in addition, cut to the very heart of the most sensitive issues of his time.

But the fiction of our era—that of “civilization lite”—increasingly resembles those TV series that pretend to be serious but are always funny because of the stentorian way in which they simplify and banalize life, reducing it to a handful of formulas, removing all the choices, unpredictability, and complexity that characterize the human endeavor.

The Adolf Hitler who roars and dances atop his starry throne, asking for a conqueror’s glory and obtaining it symbolically in the ovations of the ecstatic crowd, is a symbol of the enthronement, by an unexpected route, of what used to be called “art for art’s sake.” Because, after all, it is impossible to deny that the Hitler of The Producers is a character successful and persuasive beyond all measure.

Mario Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian novelist. His most recent book is
The Feast of the Goat.

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