Save us Mel Brooks, you’re our only hope

The Producers is back to save us all. The cult comedy was first released only 22 years after the horrors of World War II; even director Mel Brooks served, deactivating land mines during the Allies’ push to Germany. Were people ready for Nazi chorus girls and swastika dance routines? No, but boy did they need it. And maybe we do again.

Before The Producers, Nazis had been portrayed as the bad guys: unspeakably, unfathomably evil. Why, pondered Brooks? There’s something seductive about the dark side. Hitler wasn’t seductive, he was a mad man with a Charlie Chaplin mustache. He was ridiculous – dangerous, yes – but ridiculous all the same.

As Brooks explained to outraged rabbis, you can’t reason with dictators – only mockery weakens them. What could be better retaliation than a proud Jew creating a film about gays and hippies staging a Nazi satirical masterpiece?

It allowed people to move on from the fears of war, mock the Fuhrer and put Nazism as a footnote of history. Or so we thought. Thank goodness then for The Producers’ re-release; it’s as relevant as it was 50 years ago.

Let’s look at the plot objectively: Max Bialystock is a rotund, buffoonish, morally corrupt businessman with questionable predilections and a more questionable comb over. He promises the world a naïve everyman (Leo Bloom), and sides with neo-Nazis for personal gain, only to be responsible for a major and ethically dubious success by accident. Sound familiar? In fact, the most unrealistic aspect is Brooks’ confidence that an audience would read a Nazi celebration as ripping satire! Never have we needed to weaken the far-right with our laughter as much as today.

It’s not just The Producers’ relevance that stands the test of time. As Peter Sellers rightfully described it: “it is the essence of all great comedy combined in a single motion picture.” The opening scene sets it up perfectly: dialogue running at 100mph for over ten minutes, witty, offensive and entirely quoteable. Mel Brooks is a former drummer, so always knew how to write with rhythm; this is why there’s such similarity in line readings between the original and the 2005 musical film version. This is rapid-fire, precision comedy. Has there been anything as sublimely absurd as “Hitler, now there was a painter! He could paint an entire apartment in one afternoon. Two coats.”

50 years later, and perhaps mining Hitler for comedy is the least offensive part of The Producers. This is the generation of South Park and Sacha Baron Cohen; a showbiz satire on Nazism is tame by comparison. More uncomfortable is the dated stereotypes, namely Ulla, the dumb blonde secretary hired to dance and make love, and the obscenely camp show director Roger De Bris and his “common-law assistant” Carmen Ghia.

But rarely is the joke on them – it is the reactions of the lecherous Bailystock and the downright insane Franz Liebkind. And in the end, prejudice and conspiracy don’t pay. Well, not in the movies anyway.

The Producers is re-released in cinemas on 5thAugust, just in the nick of time.

Owen Richards is an arts writer and documentary filmmaker, currently serving as Film Editor at The Arts Desk.

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