Culture: Ready for your close-up, Herr Hitler?

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The Independent Online

Are the Germans finally ready to laugh about the Second World War? This week brought the news that 'Allo 'Allo, the sophomoric British sitcom aboutthe French resistance, has finally been sold in Germany. The network ProSiebenSat.1 has bought all 85 episodes and plans to dub them into German.

Judging from the reaction to the last German attempt to extract humour from the Second World War, 'Allo 'Allo may struggle to find an audience. At the beginning of 2007, a film called Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler was universally panned by the German critics and sunk like a stone at the box office. At the time, news magazines such as Der Spiegel attributed the film's failure to the fact that it just wasn't funny, and vigorously disputed the notion that the Germans had yet to come to terms with their recent past. But it still remains to be seen whether they will be able to laugh at anything that pokes fun at the Nazis.

A case in point is the German version of Fawlty Towers. It remains a perennial favourite in the Federal Republic, yet the episode called "The Germans" has never been translated. Similarly, Mel Brooks invited a delegation of German theatre-owners to see The Producers in 2004,but they concluded that their countrymen weren't ready for "Springtime For Hitler". This June, the German-language version of the musical comedy will finally make its debut – but in Austria, not Germany. It seems that Basil Fawlty's advice, first offered over 30 years ago, still holds true: "Don't mention the war."

Before we get too smug about this, it is worth asking whether our attitude would be any different if the boot was on the other foot. Suppose Britain had lost the Second World War and the Germans had subsequently made a sitcom taking the mickey out of Winston Churchill. Would we see the funny side? It seems doubtful. In all likelihood, we would be just as prickly and defensive.

The difference is, though, that we would have no hesitation in making light of this defeat ourselves. According to a team of researchers at the University of Western Ontario, the British are unique in enjoying jokes at their own expense. Dr Rod Martin, who led the research, concluded that our predilection for self-deprecating humour was almost certainly genetic.

Don't forget, too, that the British characters in 'Allo 'Allo are skewered alongside the French and the German. If the sitcom ends up finding an audience in Germany, it may well be due to that rather than some new-found maturity.