The first German-made film comedy about the Nazis has premiered on German television, shattering a half-century taboo on poking fun at the country's nightmare past.
"Goebbels and Geduldig," a farce about the Nazi propaganda minister and a good-humored Jewish look-alike who swap places in 1944, aired Wednesday evening, treating the greatest tragedy in German history as a comedy.
The movie was so touchy that its nervous producers spent seven years developing it -- with a script rewritten 18 times -- and sent their finished project on a two-year odyssey to small international film festivals to test the reception.
They finally presented it at home at a time when younger Germans tend to view the Nazi era as distant history rather than a moral burden.
"For young people born after 1970, the Nazi past is as far away from their lives as the period of Napoleon's aggression," said Gabi Schlattmann, from the SWR public television network that produced the film.
But critics of "Goebbels and Geduldig," which aired in prime time on the ARD network, failed to find it funny.
The conservative daily Die Welt said the work may deserve plaudits for effort, but failed for a simple reason. "A comedy doesn't have to be historically accurate, but it must at least be humorous," it wrote. "Unfortunately 'Goebbels and Geduldig' is a tragic failure on that score."
Even the star of the movie acknowledged its limitations. "It's not the most courageous film ever made," said Ulrich Muehe, 49, who plays both Joseph Goebbels and the look-alike Jewish concentration camp inmate.
"It's a bold effort, but stops short. It reflects how far we can go in Germany with the Nazis right now. Maybe in five years we can do a fully fledged Nazi comedy."
Parodies about the Nazis have long been made in Hollywood and elsewhere. Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" came out in 1940, long before Adolf Hitler's Third Reich collapsed. The Italian director Roberto Benigni won an Academy award for his "Life Is Beautiful." Films by Mel Brooks and Ernst Lubitsch also ridiculed the Nazis.
The popular American television series "Hogan's Heroes" was lampooning fat, clumsy and incompetent Nazis more than three decades ago. Yet German filmmakers avoided the painful past. Countless somber and guilt-inducing documentary movies filled that void.
The film spoofs Hitler and Eva Braun, among others. When Goebbels visits Geduldig alone in a room at a concentration camp, the Jew manages to escape while Goebbels remains behind, kicking and screaming in a straitjacket because no one believes he is the real Goebbels.
Geduldig, who had earlier entertained fellow inmates by imitating Goebbels's famous "Do you want a total war?" speech, successfully fakes a Goebbels-style address at a rally in Nuremberg and has no trouble convincing Hitler himself he is Goebbels. Only Goebbels's sex-hungry wife has doubts.
"Is it even possible to be able to laugh at all about the Nazi horrors? Especially for Germans?" wrote Der Tagesspiegel newspaper.
"It is a minor miracle that a bold attempt like this made it through to prime time. One wishes it bon voyage but fears it is instead a flop."