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POW Sitcom ` Hogan ' s Heroes ,' Very Loosely Translated, Becomes an Unlikely Hit


In Germany Now, Col. Klink's Maid Cleans in the Nude
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POW Sitcom ` Hogan ' s Heroes ,' Very Loosely Translated, Becomes an Unlikely Hit
By Greg Steinmetz

05/31/1996
The Wall Street Journal
Page A1
(Copyright (c) 1996, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)


BERLIN -- Nearly every day at 7 p.m., Falko Sokolowski turns on the television set and shows that he is part of a new era in Germany.

"We have no connection with the war generation. We do not share their opinions and lifestyle," says the 15-year-old high-school student in Bavaria. Besides, he adds, "Isn't that Col. Klink funny?"

The latest hit show on German television is " Hogan ' s Heroes ." The 1960s sitcom -- about a group of Allied prisoners in a German POW camp -- draws nearly a million viewers a day in Germany.

Though the show has aired in some 45 countries for more than two decades, the exploits of U.S. Army Col. Hogan and his daring cohorts were long deemed too controversial for German screens. Finally, in 1992, a German station started showing it, but the program flopped because of lousy lip-synching. Now, thanks to a new dubbing that makes the characters seem even more ridiculous, the series -- and its jokes about beer halls, sauerkraut and Hitler -- is one of the leading shows in its time slot.

Most viewers are below the age of 50 and reckon the show makes fun of the Nazis rather than Germans in general. "Our viewers have no problem watching a show that drags that system through the mud," says Petra Wirtz of Kabel 1, the network running the show. Sascha Muertz, a 22-year-old student who has served in the Germany army, is so enthusiastic that he created a German-language Hogan ' s Heroes "home page" on the Internet. "I like seeing officers behaving like little children," he says.

Conversing in English on the Internet, the young Mr. Sokolowski adds: "Why not watch some stupid Nazis getting their butts kicked by some American dudes?"

Some World War II veterans don't find the show quite as funny. As a Luftwaffe pilot in World War II, Harald Euteneuer flew 15 combat missions over the Baltic Sea. "I watched for a few minutes and then I turned it off in disgust," he says. "The mass media want to drag Germans soldiers through the dirt. Anyone who saw the fighting in Crete and Monte Cassino knows the German soldiers were not fools." A veteran who wrote to Kabel 1 condemns the station for defaming his "comrades who gave their lives to the Fatherland."

Germans are no longer shy about confronting their past. Nearly every night on German television, one can switch on a documentary about the Holocaust or see images of Hitler raising his arm in a salute. Last year, when the Franco-German network ARTE aired a series of broadcasts about the Third Reich in association with the 50th anniversary of the Allied victory, French politicians complained to the Germans about showing too many programs about the war.

But when it comes to laughing at themselves, Germans often draw the line. When German television first ran the British comedy "Fawlty Towers," it omitted an episode called "The Germans." In it, the hotel's owner, played by John Cleese, is unable to stop himself from mentioning the war to a group of German tourists. When a tourist orders a plate of pickled herring, Mr. Cleese responds: "Of course. A plate of Hermann Goering."

Nearly a decade passed before the episode aired in Germany. "Viewers loved it," said Bettina Witte, who bought "Fawlty Towers" for Germany's ZDF state television network. "The Germans have a sense of humor after all."

German networks had another consideration with " Hogan ' s Heroes ." The show already had a reputation in the country for perpetuating a stereotyped view of Germans, thanks in part to Sgt. Schultz and his idiotic remarks about food. "What would I do if I won the lottery?" he asks dreamily in one episode. "Everyday, I would have wienerschnitzel for breakfast."

" Hogan ' s Heroes " ran in the U.S. from 1965 to 1971, and its 168 episodes have been in syndication ever since. "It's surprising how many Americans believe that Germans wear monocles, and do nothing but go to Oktoberfest and eat sauerkraut," says Linus Menden, a Hamburg viewer who studied in the U.S.

Germany's leading film distributor, KirchGruppe, acquired the rights to Hogan years ago, but the series "lay around in the cellar," says Jan Mojto, a senior Kirch executive, for fear it might offend viewers. "For Germans, war must be serious," he says. A group of young Kirch film buffs dug it out and persuaded the company to market it.

When the first German broadcast failed to click with viewers, Leo Kirch, Germany's leading movie mogul and founder of KirchGruppe, personally got involved. "He asked me why it wasn't funny," recalls Rainer Brandt, who was hired to redo the show's lip-synching. "I said it was because the show always made the Germans look like fools."

Mr. Brandt thought the way to fix that was to make the characters look even more foolish -- just to make sure viewers understood they were caricatures. He spent a year rewriting large portions of dialogue to make it sillier. For instance, in the U.S. version of one episode, characters talk about dropping bombs over London. In the German-dubbed version, they change "bombs" to "condoms" and go on to explain how they plan to defeat the British by discouraging them from multiplying.

Mr. Brandt, who also does the voices of Tony Curtis and Elvis Presley in films shown in Germany, even added a reference to a new character to " Hogan ' s Heroes ." In the German version, the camp commandant Col. Klink often mentions his unseen cleaning lady and apparent mistress, Kalinka, who he says performs housework in the nude.

No one is more pleased with the success of " Hogan ' s Heroes " in Germany than Werner Klemperer, who played Col. Klink. A German Jew who fled his native Cologne before the war, Mr. Klemperer says he helped make sure the program showed the German army in a bad light. "I told the writers that if they ever made Col. Klink the hero of the show, I would quit. I wanted to make sure Col. Klink got it every time."

Mr. Klemperer, 72, adds that when the show first started running in the 1960s, the producers heard some of the same complaints one now hears in Germany. "People said we shouldn't be making fun of that period of time."

But he, like other participants in the original series, says the show shouldn't be taken too seriously. Robert Clary, who played a French prisoner named "Le Beau" on the show was, in real life, imprisoned in concentration camps in Poland. "I was an out-of-work actor," he says. "It didn't matter who I played."

One German veteran who wrote to Kabel 1 takes an equally philosophical view. "I myself served in that stupid war, and I lost a leg," the viewer wrote. "But I never thought that someone could make that part of our history amusing. My compliments!"

 


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