Hippies would set my father off. He couldn't fault their principles—hippies had impeccable morals, you may recall. So he went ballistic on their hair. Filthy. Bedraggled. Disgusting. No wonder they can't get a damn job.
The stream of abuse nearly drowned me. Ungrateful, insolent, evil, immoral, that was me. How dare you. One more remark like that and you'll be thrown out on the street. See how you like that, smartass.
Downfall takes us into the Führerbunker, in the last days of the War. An aide has just told Hitler that General Steiner couldn't carry out an attack, as ordered. He simply had too few men.
Hitler loses it. The army disobeyed an order. The Prussian generals betrayed him. All they learned at the military academy was how to use a knife and fork. He should have shot them all, like Stalin did. The soldiers were weaklings. Cowards.
One of Hitler's deputies stands his ground, meekly. He declares the accusation to be ungeheuerlich; "monstrous" or "outrageous". Kafka uses the same word to shock us in the first sentence of Metamorphosis; he applies it to the giant vermin once called Grigor Samsa.
Does Hitler hear this? Not at all. The tirade goes on unabated, with no-one listening. The Führer is the Führer's only audience.
Nowadays, this behaviour has a clinical name: Narcissistic Rage. It's often triggered by an insult, or a simple statement of uncomfortable facts. In therapy, one treats the narcissist by revisiting the abuse which made him mentally ill. But what's the right response for a casual victim, when caught in the crossfire between a madman and his ego?
Mocking the Monster
Unless your tormentor holds a gun to your head, the wrong response is to stand there and take it. You cede power to him.
The right reponse, I feel, is to smile.
An old adage tells us to laugh in the bully's face. It takes his power away. When the pompous ass gets a pie in the gob, his anger makes him look weaker, not stronger. I should have told my father dude, even fucking Fred Flinstone gets a haircut.
People with skills and lack of anything better to do, often spoof this scene in Downfall by way of subtitles. Probably, that's how you first came across it. Parodies became so numerous, that Constantin Film asked YouTube to take them down—illegally, as it happens.
The pizza guy is late, and Hitler goes berserk. The cast of Friends won't come to his birthday party, and Hitler goes berserk. He is banned from X-Box Live, and Hitler goes berserk. Gran Turismo 5 changes its release date, and Hitler goes berserk—"as usual", the underscreed reminds us. It took exactly 36 hours for Hitler to go berserk about Tom Cruise's divorce.
And you know what? A lot of them are quite funny.
Oliver Hirschbiegel, the director of Downfall, agrees. Friends in the online world send him these parodies, at which he laughs heartily. "The point of the film was to kick these terrible people off the throne that made them demons," he says.
Do the parodies actually amplify the message of the original work? When it comes to giving demons the shove, a belly laugh packs plenty of kick. Think about political cartoons. Think about animated cartoons, for that matter.
In World War Two, animation powerhouses like Disney and Warner Brothers produced propaganda films. In fact, Disney's State Department contract is credited with keeping the company afloat after Fantasia tanked at the box office in 1940.
In Der Fuehrer's Face, Donald Duck dreams he is a Nazi and finds life rather unpleasant. The theme song, recorded by the über-silly Spike Jones, became a hit in 1942, and the film itself won an Oscar in 1943. (You can watch it here. And read a discussion here.)
But Disney's biggest war film is grim, overbearing and utterly unfunny. Education for Death cracks a few limp jokes, but spends most of its ten excruciating minutes aping Leni Riefenstahl with ink-and-paint. (Take a look at it here.) Shadows, silhouettes and low, wide angles abound—a bit like a modern-day political attack ad. Oscar bait, it ain't.
The enfants terrible of Warner Brothers took a different tack. They made the enemy stupid, rather than evil. Much easier to understand, and ultimately, to act upon.
Soon after the film starts, we catch Hitler in a fit of narcissistic rage, of the kind which defines him in our cultural memory. He spits a torrent of nonsense at an unseen audience; the writers and animators used many of their own names to construct a German-sounding rant, since many had fled Germany but a decade before. After half a minute of hysterical shouting, the cartoon lands a devastating punch. A hand holds a camera card before us. It reads: Silly, isn't he?
Let's assume that these cartoons were an early example of the Family Guy school of animation. That is, a cartoon aimed at adults, but which uses the conventions of the medium to reduce adult concerns to child-like simplicity. Cartoons are crude by nature; they can turn superego concepts into big, loud, colourful creatures of the id.
In World War II, Disney and Warners scratched two different spots on the American emotional underbelly. Which approach proved more effective?
Disney scares me. This is useful in wartime, of course. But the Warner approach succeeds on a different level.
Warners mocked the enemy. If someone had pointed out, in 1923, that Hitler was clearly and self-evidently a Froot Loop, maybe nobody would need to fight him in 1939.
Columbia Studios actually did point out that Hitler was a Froot Loop, some time before the US entered the war and propaganda became official. They harnessed another id-liberating force: The Three Stooges. In You Natzy Spy, Moe Howard became the first American comedian to play Hitler on film, predating Charlie Chaplin by nine months. Both Curly and Moe considered it their finest film. For my taste, any Three Stooges short that didn't sock Hitler with a cream pie on the schnozzola, missed the opportunity of the century.
Ve Have Vays
The Nazis knew the subversive power of mockery only too well. That's why they tried to stamp it out.
Rudolph Herzog, son of the famous Werner, was cleaning out a great-aunt's apartment after she moved away. He made a rather curious discovery; several pages of jokes from the early forties, making fun of the government. He set out to discover if these japes betrayed a sly resistance by rank-and-file Germans, or simply allowed a nation under pressure to blow off steam.
It led him to make a documentary film and write a book about humour under the Nazis. The book is pubished in English as Dead Funny, and in the original German as Heil Hitler, das Schwein ist Tot!, or Heil Hitler, the Pig is Dead! The accompanying documentary film bears the unfortunate title Ve Have Vays of Making You Laugh.
The Pig is Dead refers to the punchline of the all-time most famous anti-Hitler joke. I shall not tell it here. It is no more than mildly funny, and further, it's one of those jokes that regularly get applied to almost any political leader.
Among its 256 pages, Herzog's book contains about 100 jokes. Most of them are simple ad hominem insults—few deal with the substance of Nazi ideology. The Guardian review describes those jokes as "feeble". And even for these, the tellers faced death.
The Nazis ruthlessly persecuted anyone who took to humour for a sense of perspective. They wiped out a vibrant political cabaret scene, focussed on Berlin. At its peak, the notorious People's Court executed 2000 people a year for "defeatist humour". Those who escaped the death penalty, might be harassed or imprisoned. When the Nazis murdered comedian Robert Dorsay, they went so far as to announce it on billboards. Be warned: that's what comes of a wisecracker.
From a dozen years of history, in a nation which documented itself meticulously, we find a total of eight dozen political jokes. And lame ones at that—of all the jokes Herzog documents, the most biting and inventive come from inmates of the concentration camps, often about themselves.
It's a ghastly thought, but inescapable. Jews, gypsies, jazz musicians, homosexuals, students and intellectuals—groups the Nazis most hated—held shrewd, distinctive senses of humour. In his extraordinary paper on humour in the Holocaust, John Morreall reminds us of the Talmud. According to the ancient Rabbis, those who make others laugh earn a place in Heaven.
Under National Socialism, it might earn a Jew his place rather quickly. Welsh journalist Gareth Jones wrote from Berlin in 1933:
Even Jewish jokes are regarded by many Nazis as part of the subtle scheme of world domination by the Jews. Hitler suggests that the Jews try to depict themselves in comic newspapers as a harmless, humorous people in order to mislead public opinion into thinking that they are no danger.
Any sensible person should have found this laughable. Jones goes on to describe an encounter he had with the German Students Union. Jews were constant liars, they maintained. Since the language of the Jew is Hebrew, you see, anything he speaks in German must perforce be a lie.
How can one respond? One could engage reason against this claim—does the same logic apply to translations of the Bible into German, for example? But frankly, arguing with a madman agrees to the madman's terms. A better response is are you fucking crazy?
Crazy, they were. They were so fucking crazy, they couldn't see jokes cracked under their very noses.
Morreall tells the tale of Freud's flight from occupied Austria. The Reich agreed to let him emigrate, as long as he signed a letter stating he hadn't been mistreated. Here's what he wrote:
To Whom It May Concern:
I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone.
In a common cabaret schtick, artists would wear gags in their mouths, and sit silent onstage for several minutes. When they left, the MC would announce that concludes the political part of our programme. The sketch passed muster, it seems.
The Fish Laughs from the Head
Nazi discomfort with humour went all the way to the top, to the Führer himself. In 1943, the US Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the CIA) circulated a psychoanalytic profile of Hitler. They, too, thought he was fucking crazy.
Like so much early work in the field, it falls victim to psychobabble and speculation.
The authors spout conventional wisdom of the time, like homosexuality being a perversion and women being weak or submissive. With Freud still avant-garde, they looked for daddy issues under every rock. And the OSS let a few howlers slip through; Hitler's godfather, they maintain, was Jewish, which must have made for a perplexing baptism.
Nonetheless, the report shows a good deal of corroborated evidence that Hitler despised even affectionate jests made at his expense—thousands were condemned after naming their dogs or horses "Adolph", for example.
Hypocritical, since Hitler was a gifted mimic, who lampooned friends and associates mercilessly. The report notes that he is "afraid of logic". Since humour delights in following logic to extremes, it's no wonder he hated a joke.
The Nazis fractured a nation's funny bone, and for a dozen or more years, it joked with a limp. How could they wipe out an entire culture's sense of humour, and get everyone to think it's a good idea? How could they make humour a sign of decadence? How could they make it politically incorrect to laugh? How could they get away with it?
At this point, it would be easy to wheel out the old trope about humourless Germans. Not only does it derail the discussion, but it simply isn't true. There may be much to say about cultural differences among nations, and the distinctive ways they laugh about the world, but this tired stereotype shouldn't be included in it.
Rather, let's get back to where we started. Why did narcissistic rage earn respect it didn't deserve, when a laugh could deflate it?
Many have written how they felt mesmerised—indeed hypnotised—by Hitler's public appearances. He aimed to enchant as well as persuade; the music, the pomp, the surroundings, and even the (literal) armies of attractive men and women. Hitler's speeches beguiled them so thoroughly that few found the power to resist.
His oratorical technique hardly broke new ground, though. A memorable setting, repetition, pauses, sensing the emotional temperature of an audience, building to a climax—they are the foundations on which the great speeches of history get built.
Read the words Shakespeare puts into Marc Antony's mouth at Caesar's funeral. Notice how he starts casually and low key (Friends...lend me your ears...). Look at how often he repeats words for rhetorical effect, like honourable and ambitious. He saves the clincher for the end, where he subtly slams Caesar's opponents as "brutish beasts" who have "lost their reason".
Watch I Have a Dream, to see the same devices in action—which shows one can use rhetorical technique for good, as well as ill.
What made Hitler different, and uniquely persuasive to his fellow Germans of the time? Looking at his speeches today, the element that makes them distinctive is the sheer volume of Narcissistic Rage. He starts slow, sometimes almost benign, but whips himself into a torrent of anger. Even the most fiery orators seldom reach the fury of Hitler in full flight. Where else can we find the seductive certainty of Narcissistic Rage at work?
Look to the pulpit. I recall the same tone of indignant anger at the conservative Catholic church of my childhood. The priests spat contempt; for sin, for sinners, for the congregation itself (especially when the parish was short of cash). And for the most part, the laity not only sucked it up, but did as told.
The most spellbinding holy rage, of course, comes from fundies. They resist mockery because they are virtual parodies of themselves. The late American comedian Sam Kinison, who specialised in the comedy of anger, actually started out as a fundamentalist preacher.
Yet congregants take them seriously. Believers are schooled to believe such anger is righteous and good. No wonder. For many years, such speech was legally protected from even the gentlest ribbing. Remember blasphemy laws? They prove stubborn to undo, even in the most liberal of jurisdictions. While enforcement has relaxed, the social norms they fostered have not. For many ardent believers, a mere chuckle at the word of god is tantamount to the most appalling violence.
And in Bavaria, where we endure a Catholic Church of the most bitter and toxic sort, should we be surprised that other bitter and toxic ideologies once earned a place at the table?
Anger Unlaughed At
In modern Germany, have we developed a healthier perspective on anger? Wutbürger, the ever-present threat of a public scolding by strangers, or even ex-President Wulff's voicemail messages, give me pause.
One thing is for sure. We have not re-learned how to make fun of fascists yet.
One of the reasons we don't make fun of fascists very well, is because you can't talk about them openly. The government proscribes the manner in which Nazism may be depicted. No Nazi symbols in public—though theatre, film, television and books may use such symbols as long as they do not advocate in favour. When it comes to National Socialism, the German authorities really do have no sense of humour.
Still, as the events of the 1930s and 40s fade from living memory, German satirists have begun to experiment. The results, so far, are grim.
Take the 2007 film Mein Führer—Die wirklich wahrste Wahrheit über Adolf Hitler, or Mein Führer—The Really True, Totally Trudeldee-do Truest Truth About Adolph Hitler. (That's my own translation, which evokes the full cringe of Fremdschämen one feels when one hear's the original). It is considered a blot on he career of anyone associated with it. Plug the Amazon reviews into Google Translate to get a sense of how badly audiences received the piece.
Most object to the film on the same grounds as Downfall. Talking about Hitler as a clown or weakling humanises him, and earns our sympathy. This strikes me as a poor understanding of the mechanics of ridicule.
Chaplin's The Great Dictator was released in the West in 1958, and in the East in 1980. It gets a warm reception, perhaps warmer than in English-speaking countries.
That's understandable, since the film is politically correct in a mainstream European way, and it ends with the hero making an angry public speech, in the finest German oratorical tradition.
Even so, many approach it with caution. Online comments in the German-speaking world always begin with the disclaimer we really shouldn't laugh at Hitler, but... One Amazon reviewer suggests, kindly, that viewers need to be prepared to make an "emotional and intellectual investment" in a film such as this—presumably, without encouragement, they might be reluctant to do so.
The German-language production of Mel Brooks' The Producers, if you'll pardon the expression, bombed. (For the plot of The Producers, click its Wikipedia page here)
The press and theatre cognoscenti gave it a thumbs up,—could they do anything else, lest they be painted as humourless German stereotypes? The Berlin production won an honorary Ernst Lubitsch Prize, usually awarded for a comic performance in German language film. A spokesperson for the Admiralspalast Theatre spoke of the honour: "The story of two Jewish crooks fits to Berlin like no other, reflecting the great tradition of Jewish humour." (My emphasis)
I see. It's Jewish humour, not humour per se.
After an inital flourish of enthusiasm in both Vienna and Berlin, audiences stayed away. Promoters blamed poor marketing.
Imagine Atlanta in the late 1920s. A theatrical impressario wants to mount the latest Broadway success, a story of two scamming theatrical producers who need to find a guaranteed flop. The protagonists stumble upon a play called Springtime for Ol' Massa, with a centrepiece that features a chorus of Antebellum gentry singing about all the human beings they might chain up and whip. Its plot turns on how the play-within-a-play becomes a surprise hit.
Our impressario might blame his failure on poor marketing, too.
On the other hand, we can point to a real-life Nazi-themed surprise hit: Ein Käfig voller Helden, better known as Hogan's Heroes. The show, dubbed into German, enjoys a solid cult following, and is a staple of DVD racks across Germany. Now there's something to make a cultural anthropologist's head explode.
(Recently, my language skills have progressed from atrocious to merely awful. I've set myself the task of watching Hogan's Heroes and The Great Dictator in German. The Vienna cast album of The Producers sits in the car CD player. Lemme get back to you after I've digested them all.)
Not long after I arrived in Munich, I stumbled onto a demonstration at the Isartor. A neo-Nazi group had organised a march, and it earned a huge police presence. Officers lined the streets, formed human barriers around public buildings, and filmed the event so troublemakers could be recognised later.
Caught in the crowd, I had missed an important fact. When I got home and read the press reports, I learned that the police spent most of their energy on the angry counter-protestors. The evening paper told us how the police kept Nazi opponents kettled-in, as we say in German. The placard in the photo reads Fascism is not an opinion, but a crime.
Tempers flared. The neo-Nazis, relatively few in number, actually had the upper hand from a political and PR point of view. Police needed to keep cool heads, since the encounter easily might have turned into a conflagration.
Did anger work? What might have worked better?
To answer that question, please click on this link. It shows a parade float from Karneval 2007 in Düsseldorf, via the Petaflop Design Group's coverage. The float consists of a giant papier-mache figure of Hitler in uniform (minus the swastikas, of course, since that would be illegal to show in public). A large turd hangs out of his ass. The turd is labelled "NPD" for the National Democratic Party of Germany, widely regarded as a neo-Nazi group.
Why didn't the protestors just borrow the parade float, park it along the route, and repair to the pub? Much better plan.
Of course, it was important to view the neo-Nazis as a serious threat. Their ideas and twisted morals pose such a danger to humanity, we must stop them at every turn, and by every means. Thoughtful men and women must be roused to action.
But it doesn't hurt to make fun of their goddamn stupid shoes, either.
Laughter has magic to it. Those who employ humour to mock an undeserving subject, generally come undone. Those who make a sense of humour their constant companion, hold up a shield against hypocrisy and inhumanity. Morreall reminds us that laughter is our most powerful weapon against indoctrination.
But should we, like Lear, make the jester our conscience? Are comedians becoming our moral voice? Arguably, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert act as the moral voice of America, since America's traditional moral voices spout the devil's words.
That brings with it a responsibility. Bill Maher is one of the new breed of moralist comedians; he cautions the angry comics of this world to remember their power. The have a choice to use that power for active good, not just to skewer an easy target.
Not every joke about Hitler serves a noble purpose. And just calling your opponent a Nazi hardly amounts to a winning argument.
As Charlie Chaplin began to shoot The Great Dictator, he reflected on the project. Both he and Hitler were born in April of 1889, were of the same height, and even had the same moustache. Chaplin observed that the Führer "is the madman and I'm the comedian...but it could have just as easily be reversed."
Laughter helps us remember who's who.
Must his madness drive us?
I don't think about my late father very much. When I do, my jaw clenches, and my blood pressure rises. He failed the benefit of the doubt I gave him so often, and so consistently, that I mentally look the other way when he pops into my head. If anger seeks to breed, then mission accomplished.
He was very much the family rogue. His several siblings, along with their spouses and children, tiptoe around my father's memory. Just like I do.
At a recent family gathering, we chatted about how my aunts and uncles have made such close and devoted relationships. Marriages of forty and fifty years are the norm; divorce in our family is practically unheard of.
Except for my father, of course. When he died, he was engaged to his third fiance.
The exception had to be acknowledged—especially since his son was part of the conversation—but the group did its best to politely sidestep the topic. I felt I should say something.
"Well, you know Mike. He was a randy old billy goat."
A relative spurted her drink out of her nose. Another replied, quietly, "Yup." Everybody laughed.
I felt better. We all felt better. We could move on, to talk about important things; which granchild was graduating from where, what the latest baby had been named, who was on vacation, what flavour doughnut one should choose at the coffee shop, and the price of gas these days.
We could move on.
So, my German friends and neighbours, feel better. Laugh at Hitler heartily. When you hesitate to do so, you cede him (and his contemporary followers) more power than they deserve.
Is Hitler funny? The answer is yes. Moreover, he's laughable. And long may he stay that way.
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