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I don't know if you've heard, but there's something of a resurgence of fascism happening in the United States right now. It's a terrifying trend, an anti-democratic swell of white supremacy and Nazism that threatens to uproot the stability of the world and places minorities at the whims of an openly hostile political movement. But for as grave as this is, there is something we can do, something that robs oppressors of their ominous power, even if momentarily: we can laugh.
Mel Brooks understood this when he made the 1967 comedy The Producers. The story of crooked producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and his manipulable accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), Brooks's cult hit follows the pair as they attempt to defraud investors and make a play destined to flop so that they may embezzle the investments without the IRS taking notice. Their brilliant scheme calls for them to find the worst play imaginable, with the worst possible director and the worst star. And that play is Springtime For Hitler, a "love letter to Hitler" that is the height of bad taste. Of course, in producing the disaster, the plan backfires on Max and Leo, becoming such a hit the pair can never pay back the legion of little old ladies that Max was seducing for the funds.
The reason for this hit is in picking a director (Christopher Hewett) with a flair for gay eccentricity – the portrayal of gay culture is, uh, dated? Let's go with dated – and a star (Dick Shawn) that makes Hitler seem like a foppish hippy. The result is a product that marries the theatricality of the Third Reich, the perception of the Nazis as compelled by the propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl, with the intrinsic silliness of glitz, glamour, and levity. And through that juxtaposition, Brooks calls attention to the inherent gaudiness of Nazi performance, robbing the fearful iconography of its gravity and delivering upon the witless producers a satirical reduction of evil to the individual elements that on their own are little more than showmanship.
And that biting satire is packaged in a wonderful farce led by some of the most memorable characters of Mel Brooks's career. Zero Mostel embodies the scheming, manipulative nature of a failure looking for the next get-rich-quick scheme, while Gene Wilder captures the spirit of a spineless goof whipped up into the promise a life greater than his own, but he still relies on hysterical neuroses to keep himself grounded. The pair is able to deliver a nonstop bevy of witticisms, slapstick shenanigans, and ironic despair that carries this farcical tale from inception to its ultimate anti-Nazi punchline.
In 1967, The Producers came out while the threat of Nazi domination was only a generation removed from having been very real. The feelings of despair over the calamity of fascism were still very fresh, but what Brooks understood better than most is that you don't have to make light of Nazi atrocities in order to take the Nazis themselves down a peg. By making the Nazis themselves the objects of derision, it robs them of the power to paint themselves as anything more than a very human and very fallible force. The Producers is funny for many, many reasons, but its relevance today probably most largely hinges on its treatment of fascist adherents as performative fools just as worthy of mockery as anyone. In times like these, that's important to remember, and you can do so by watching The Producers here.