As the son of a Jewish mother who escaped the Holocaust by moving to Switzerland (“at the very last moment!”), Dani Levy has had a lifelong fascination with the Third Reich.
As soon as he could, he moved from his home town of Basel to Berlin and launched an acting/directing career in comedies, but the 52-year-old filmmaker says that it wasn’t until he was in his mid-30s that his mother could bring herself to talk about his life in Germany, and ask him how the country had changed.
“When I was growing up, the subject of Hitler and the war and the camps — all of that was strictly taboo in the household,” says Levi in a recent interview. “It was strange, because there was absolutely no discussion about it. As a child, I couldn’t understand why. Now, I understand that there are no amount of words that could lessen the pain of their memories.”
Though Levy finds it gratifying to see how the German film industry is dealing with Hitler — “literally, taking the bad bull by the horns!” — he felt that too many stories were similar in tone and message to “Downfall.”
“It was all getting dogmatic, and repetitive,” says Levy. “They were searching for some kind of inner truth about that time by striking at the heavy core, again and again. But I think filmmaking is about producing a new reality, instead of retreading over the old one. I didn’t want to be irreverent, but we really did have enough tragic stories about Hitler.”
How did you come upon the story?
A few years ago, there was a rash of memoirs published about the Third Reich, and among them was one written by Hitler’s vocal coach. The book wasn’t meant to be funny, but I felt there was potential there for a great comedy. I wrote the screenplay, I got the funds together — this really was an extremely speedy process because I felt that if we waited, even for another couple of months, we wouldn’t be able to make it.
I didn’t want to make this an introspective or reflective sort of film. Speed of production was one of its main concepts, so from start to finish, we made it all in one year, which is a record-setting short time for a historical period piece.
What are your own thoughts on being a Jew?
I only became conscious of it after I moved to Berlin, started working, and when my mother came to visit me many years later. It really was a big psychological hurdle for her to cross the border into Germany.
Now being a Jew is an issue for me, because I live in Germany and am always surrounded by stories of the Third Reich. You know, the Germans are obsessed about how a man like Hitler could have come to power and how so many Germans could have turned into murderers. But I think that the seeds of violence had already been there — you can’t have a violent dictator without first having violence entrenched in society.
How about your thoughts on Hitler?
I refuse to see him as a one-dimensional evil character. That’s a stereotype and an easy way out. In many ways, he was a nice, gentle person, good with children and polite to women.
He was certainly a genius propagandist. A lot of Germans thought he was “of the people” and not an aristocratic asshole, and they were probably correct. But at this point, I think we’re in danger of portraying Hitler as a gigantic monument to horror. To be confronted with his image leaves us paralyzed with fear and terror. And that makes him untouchable. He becomes, in some awful way, sacrosanct. I wanted to prevent that, to show the weak and disarming human being that he was. We already know the crimes he was responsible for, and I didn’t want him resting on his laurels, so to speak. I wanted to pull him down from that chair, and show the world that it’s OK to lose our terror of him, to laugh at him, if even a little bit.