Isn't it in bad taste to make jokes about a mass murderer? So what explains the recent slew of Hitler comedy, including a hit film in Germany?
JAIME J. WEINMAN
Is Adolf Hitler the funniest man in the world? You'd think that one of the most vicious mass murderers of all time would be less of a hot comedy
topic than, say, mothers-in-law. But with a slew of Hitler jokes on television and in stand-up comedy, a new book on Hitler jokes, and a new hit comedy film from his native country, there's only one conclusion to draw: Hitler comedy is in.
Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler, a new film by writer-director Dani Levy, has gotten lots of publicity as the first German movie to make fun of Hitler. The film shows Hitler (Helge Schneider) losing the war and losing his grip, suffering from impotence and insanity. His advisers hire a Jewish actor (Ulrich Mühe) to teach the Füh-
rer how to act like a competent dictator again. The actor gets his revenge on Hitler by making him dress in a jogging outfit and crawl around on the floor. Another scene is reminiscent of a gag in the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business: Hitler’s barber makes a mistake while shaving him, leaving him with only half a moustache. Though the film has its dark and serious moments, it’s more Duck Soup than Schindler’s List.
There have been Hitler comedies before, of course. The very first one was Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film The Great Dictator, where the comedian-director played Hitler caricature Adenoid Hynkel. But that was made in the United States, which didn’t experience Nazi rule; so were later Nazi-bashing comedies like Mel Brooks’s The Producers (a.k.a. “Springtime For Hitler”) and its musical remake. Countries that did experience Hitler first-hand haven’t usually made light of the experience. But now that Germany has several generations of moviegoers who were born after Hitler died, there’s an audience that doesn’t consider itself tainted by association with Germany’s past. And this audience seems to enjoy laughing at their country’s dark history: Mein Führer’s opening weekend made it Germany’s No. 1 movie.
If Hitler comedy is starting to become popular in Germany, it’s absolutely thriving in other parts of the world. In North American popular culture, the word “Hitler” ranks up there with “Cleveland” in the pantheon
of surefire comedy words. Stand-up comics and sitcoms make jokes about Hitler as a matter of course. Larry David’s act includes a joke that begins “The thing I admire about Hitler is...” (it turns out that David likes the fact that Hitler hated magicians), while Sarah Silverman does a joke about Hitler’s birthday being announced on Entertainment Tonight. The writers of The Simpsons have had an ongoing fascination with Hitler, ever since the second season when Homer Simpson thought the capital of North Dakota was “Hitler” (confusing him with Bismarck). The creator of the series, Matt Groening, a selfproclaimed progressive, has said repeatedly that he hates Hitler jokes. But in spite of his objections, the staff keeps on writing them; an episode this January featured a cardboard cut-out of Hitler in a library with a caption that said: “Before I was a Nazi leader, I was a Nazi reader.”
Other, more esoteric forms of Hitler comedy have taken off. Two Europeans (one in Holland, the other in England) started catsthatlooklikehitler.com, where people send in photographs of cats that resemble the moustached mass murderer. They even have a name for them: “Kitlers.” Click on the site and you’ll see adorable photographs of cats with strategically placed black spots that look like Hitler moustaches, or stretching out their paws in a Sieg Heil salute. Paul Neve, the editor of the site, tells Maclean’s that he finds humour in the incongruity of “the fact that the moggie who purrs like an outboard motor and covers your clothes in enough hair to keep Burt Reynolds in wigs for the rest of his life looks like the most evil dictator in history.”
Is it in bad taste to make jokes about Hitler? Of course it is; that’s one reason why it’s done, since bad taste is an important part of comedy. But that doesn’t mean such jokes are necessarily out of bounds. Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, criticized Mein Führer as being unfunny and therefore “unnecessary and even dangerous.” But he immediately added that he has no problem with Hitler comedies as long as they’re good ones: “Chaplin wasn’t Jewish and he succeeded; he did a great job with The Great Dictator.”
And Hitler comedy, like other ways of making light of serious subjects, sometimes has a serious purpose to it. Dani Levy (whose last movie was a comedy about another touchy subject, the place of Jews in post-unification Germany) is clearly influenced by American anti-Nazi comedies like The Great Dictator and especially Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be. That movie, which was released in 1942 and immediately became controversial, portrayed Nazism as villain-
Like fun ous of and its Chaplin, evil, ridiculous Lubitsch but also aspects. found made it absurd that an entire movement would be devoted to the
cultish worship of a mediocre man like Hitler, and the movie makes the point over and over again that Hitler, the supposed superman, is nothing more than “a man with a little moustache.”
Though Levy reportedly rewrote and reshot the movie after test audiences thought it wasn’t serious enough about the Nazi terror, he still insists that making a Hitler comedy has a serious purpose in and of itself: “I don’t want to give this cynical, psychological wreck of a person the honour of a realistic portrayal,” he told swissinfo.org. “I had the feeling that I must do it with another genre, do it by being able to exaggerate through comedy.”
Other makers of Hitler comedies attribute similarly lofty goals to their jokes about moustaches and swastikas. Brooks, who is so associated with Hitler comedy that he even produced and starred in a remake of To Be Or Not to Be, told Der Spiegel that “by using the medium of comedy, we can try to rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths.” If we take Hitler seriously, you could argue, we’re already showing him more respect than he deserves; the ultimate insult to a megalomaniac is to laugh at him.
There’s something to the idea that Hitler comedy is a way of cutting Hitler down to size. For one thing, Hitler’s own history showed that he literally hated humour, at least when it had anything to do with him. In Nazi Germany, people could and did get thrown in concentration camps for making jokes about Hitler. Last year, a book called Heil Hitler, The Pig is Dead! was released in Germany. It was an in-depth study of the Nazi-era jokes about the dictator, jokes that circulated underground as a form of rebellion. Rudolph Herzog, the author of the book (and director of a companion documentary), explained why Hitler feared humour: “If you laugh about Hitler, you rob him of the metaphysical, demonic capabilities that the postwar apologists attributed to him.”
But the book also suggests a more unpleasant side to Hitler humour: the very popularity of Hitler jokes proves that many people knew how absurd Hitler was, and yet did nothing to push back against the Hitler cultism that led to the Holocaust. “The Germans were by no means powerless victims of propaganda,” Herzog said to Der Spiegel. “This didn’t change the fact that the country was sucked down into a whirlpool of crime in the space of just a few years.” In other words,
while laughter can be a weapon of sorts, it can also be a way of evading the issue at hand; as Woody Allen said in Manhattan, when dealing with Nazis, baseball bats are more effective than biting satire.
Still, if Hitler comedy doesn’t help us overcome evil, it can at least cut evil down to size a little. A problem with some anti-Hitler works is that they can fall into the trap of imputing almost superhuman qualities to him. Look at a serious story like Norman Mailer’s new novel The Castle in the Forest, where the story of Hitler’s childhood is literally narrated by a devil. It may make sense to view Hitler as a satanic figure, but that still fits his self-declared image; there was nothing Hitler liked more than to be portrayed as exceptional and fearsome. Hitler might have been angrier at the way comedians portray him—as an idiot, or a lunatic, or a tabby cat. Which means that the audiences for Hitler comedy are at least getting a sense that there’s nothing exceptional about the person who did so much evil. In many ways that’s more disturbing than reassuring, but comedy isn’t always reassuring. “There is a saying, ‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,’ ” Neve says. “I think the same goes for those who can’t laugh at history as well.” M
LARRY DAVID HAS A JOKE THAT BEGINS, THE THING I ADMIRE ABOUT HITLER IS...’ (TURNS OUT IT’S HITLER’S HATRED OF MAGICIANS)
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