Hitler or Miss: When Nazis Take a D(r)ubbing

The last time I was greeted with ’Allo ‘Allo! (1982-92), I was stepping into the Carne Di Hall in Budapest. As the restaurant sign already warned me, I was in for the slaughter of languages and had to prepare for the Wurst. I was too busy though poring over the menu to ponder whether a British sitcom set in Nazi-occupied France might be in poor taste. Sipping my instant coffee this morning, I once again caught a few snippets of the show when I came across this item on the BBC News online. According to the report, Allo ‘Allo! has by now aired in forty countries—but I did not grow up in one of them. You see, was born and raised in Germany.

Before moving to the US, I was unaware just how popular The Sound of Music is elsewhere; I had never seen it. Before relocating to Britain, I had never even heard of The Colditz Story (1955), without a screening of which it would not be Easter in the United Kingdom. Coming of age in West Germany, I was being sheltered from words and images that would make my grandparents uneasy. I may not have gotten stuck behind the Wall, but the world’s views of my grandfatherland were being carefully filtered for me all the same. Some decade and a half after its last original episode aired in Britain, ’Allo, ‘Allo! is being readied for its Deutsch debut. Is it springtime for Hitler in Germany? Is it all right for the offspring of Hitler’s children to laugh at the extreme right? Are my fellow countrymen and women ready to redefine the “Camp” in Concentration Camp? I am not sure whether Germans find it difficult to laugh at caricatures of their former selves because they cannot make light of their past or because they so desperately want to feel proud of themselves.

Perhaps, the reception of Heil Honey, I’m Home! is going to be the ultimate test. Even the British considered that one too hard to stomach. Then again, so much depends on the dubbing; and when it comes to pop cultural imports, Germans do quite a bit of cleaning up.

I realized that when I first watched the Marilyn Monroe comedy The Prince and the Showgirl in its original version. The German translation does away with all the German, turning Monroe’s character into a French-American. ‘Allo, ‘allo? Whatever historical context there was in The Prince —the Balkan crisis leading to World War I—is being erased to leave nothing but a fairytale. Now, the original is mostly that, but you’ve got to wonder at the pains the German film industry took during the late 1950s to change the background of this innocuous piece of popular culture so as to keep from those who came to see a bombshell any memories of bombs and shell shock.

Germans get edgy when confronted elsewhere with language that recalls their past. I remember going to Coney Island with my sister. We walked past the famous rollercoaster; and when I told her its name, she thought it “geschmacklos” (“tasteless”). The word Cyclone reminded her of Zyklon B, the poison with which our grandparents’ generation had exterminated thousands of their Jewish neighbors, colleagues, and relations.

This afternoon, BBC 2 broadcast Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), the spy thriller whose premise it was that VE-Day had not taken care of the Nazis altogether. Not having seen it since the 1999 Hitchcock centenary screenings at the MoMA, I am going to revisit Notorious in a moment; and I shall keep in mind that, when the film premiered in Germany, it was reduced to the story of drug smuggling. To leave no doubt as to the kind of villainy depicted, Notorious was retitled “Weisses Gift” (“white poison”). How can a people get the picture if it does not get the sound to go with it?

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