Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, a comedy about a 10-year-old member of the Hitler Youth who must decide what to do when he discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in his attic, will be released on Friday. The writer-director, who is the child of a Jewish mother and a Maori father, plays Adolf Hitler himself, as the boy’s imaginary friend, and early reviews have already focused on what my colleague Sam Adams, who saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, called the “tricky balancing act” of Hitler humor: “There will be plenty of people who object to the movie on concept alone.” This is the eternal debate: Is it right to make comedy of a man who did such transcendently horrible things?
We have about a week before Jojo Rabbit hits theaters. That’s enough time for a quick look at the history of spoofs of der Führer so you can see the movie armed with better context to judge for yourself. Here’s your syllabus.
Programming note: For focus’s sake, we’ve excluded works about Nazis more broadly (such as Life Is Beautiful, Inglourious Basterds, and Jerry Lewis’ unreleased Holocaust comedy The Day the Clown Cried) in order to concentrate on parodies of the man himself.
Day 1: Wartime
1939: “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball,” British popular song
1943: “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” Disney, featuring Donald Duck
Early satires of Hitler could aim directly at Adolf’s pomposity and self-seriousness without having to worry so much whether it was right to make humor out of the total devastation Hitler had only begun to wreak. Before the United States even entered the war, when our official policy was still isolationist, some Americans saw the man with the mustache as a wonderful subject for their mockery. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, with the actor in dual roles as an anonymous Jewish barber and his doppelgänger dictator, Adenoid Hynkel, makes fine comedy out of Hitler’s grandiose ambitions—most famously in a memorable scene featuring a besotted Hynkel dancing beautifully with a globe. This funny film ends on a sincere note, with a climactic, impassioned speech by the barber, who takes Hynkel’s place and appeals earnestly to the Germans in the audience (and to moviegoers) for peace and liberty over hatred and dictatorship.
The Great Dictator is probably the best remembered of the Hitler satires of the wartime era, and it’s definitely the most artistically satisfying, but the Three Stooges got there first. In “You Nazty Spy,” a Stooges short, humble wallpaper hanger Moe gets unexpectedly elevated to dictator of the country of “Moronika” after three munitions manufacturers plot to put a puppet in power so they can start a war and line their pockets. In the somewhat-less-funny follow-up, “I’ll Never Heil Again,” the dictator, his henchmen, and leaders of countries he’s got his eye on have an endless slapstick fight over—yes—a globe.
In “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” a Disney short featuring Donald Duck as an American who dreams about what it would be like to be a worker in a German munitions factory, Hitler isn’t a character, exactly, but his mug—exaggeratedly out of proportion, with tiny eyes and a tiny mustache—is everywhere. Dream Donald must give a Nazi salute every time he sees it, and the real-life Hitler’s requirement for mindless obedience becomes excellent physical comedy.
As for “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball,” set to the popular World War I tune “Colonel Bogey’s March,” this song mocking Hitler’s rumored right-side cryptorchidism emerged out of the British military sometime in 1939. (The British comedy show Armstrong and Miller has a funny early-2000s sketch about this ditty.) I don’t usually love jokes that poke fun at somebody’s lack of masculinity, but come on. It’s Hitler.
Extra Credit: Robert Cole, “Anglo-American Anti-Fascist Film Propaganda in a Time of Neutrality: The Great Dictator, 1940” (PDF), Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 2001.
Day 2: Postwar Fables
1958: Dr. Seuss, Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories
Frustrated by American isolationism, Theodor Seuss Geisel, then a successful advertising artist and part-time children’s book author, became a political cartoonist for the magazine PM in 1940. (“I had no great causes or interest in social issues until Hitler,” Seuss told his biographers.) In a brief series of cartoons called “Mein Early Kampf,” Geisel imagined Hitler as a tantrum-prone baby. Little Hitler wings a bottle at his mother; the caption reads “June 5, 1889: I reject milk from Holstein cows as non-Aryan.” This dictator-baby’s small bed is embellished with a very Seuss-y nickname: “Adolfikins.”
Seuss said that the tale of Yertle the Turtle, published as part of a volume of children’s stories in 1958, was “modeled on the rise of Hitler,” but in a cultural climate where people were reluctant to mock such a recent tragedy, this allegory is buried in a children’s story. Yertle, the “king” of a turtle pond, demands that his fellow turtles create an ever-increasing body pile for him to mount so that he can survey a larger and larger domain. A turtle on the bottom of the stack tells Yertle that those underneath are starving and suffering: “We turtles can’t stand it. Our shells will all crack!” “You hush up your mouth!” Yertle howls, eyes rimmed with dark circles, arm flung outward in a rough parody of a Nazi salute. “You’ve no right to talk to the world’s highest turtle!” Eventually, Yertle comes tumbling down when the stack revolts—a classic Seussian lesson about the dangers of greed.
Supplemental Reading: Philip Nel, “ ‘Said a Bird in the Midst of a Blitz … ’: How World War II Created Dr. Seuss,” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, June 2001.
Day 3: The Absurdist Turn
1967: The Producers (Rent on Amazon Prime)
1969: “Mr. Hilter and the North Minehead By-Election,” sketch in Season 1, Episode 12 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (Watch on Netflix)
1983: “To Be or Not to Be (The Hitler Rap)” (Watch on YouTube, oh please do)
1990: Heil Honey I’m Home!, British sitcom written by Geoff Atkinson, directed by Juliet May. You can see bits of the only surviving episode on YouTube.
While The Producers earned Mel Brooks a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, it got mixed reactions when it came out in 1968. The sitcom Hogan’s Heroes (1965–71) had recently tried to get Americans back into Nazi jokes, but critics had accused it of tastelessness. Young people, historian Kirsten Fermaglich points out, tended to love The Producers, seeing genius in its black humor; older people weren’t quite ready to go there yet.
In the movie, a producer and an accountant scheme together to produce a musical that’s a flop, in order to scam investors out of money. This fictional show, written by an ex-Nazi, is called Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden, and the two conspirators cast a zoned-out hippie actor (Dick Shawn) as Adolf. Unexpectedly, audiences love his performance and the whole bizarre show, and the producers’ plans come to naught.
In a recent profile, Brooks told David Denby that when he got critical letters about the movie, he would write back to explain his theory of Hitler satire: “The way you bring down Hitler … you don’t get on a soapbox with him … but if you can reduce him to something laughable, you win.”
By 2001, when a new musical version of The Producers hit Broadway, public opinion had shifted along with distance from the war, and reception was universally positive: The show won 12 Tony Awards, which remains the record.
Another bit of ’60s Hitler surreality shows how well this mode of comedy, when well-executed, could work to diminish Hitler’s stature. In Monty Python’s sketch, Mr. “Hilter” (John Cleese) has taken up residence in a bed-and-breakfast in England along with a few top Nazi officers, also in disguise. The British guests at the B&B over-advise him on the route he should take, while maintaining a studious blindness to his thinly veiled true identity. “Hilter” plans to run for a minor office in a local election and gives a speech from a balcony to an audience of three children and one yokel with a straw hat. Interviewed later, the yokel comments that he “doesn’t like the sound of these ‘boncentration bamps.’ ” Everyone’s a fool in this sketch, but “Hilter,” ranting recycled ideas to nobody, might be the biggest one.
“The Hitler Rap,” a video of a song from the soundtrack for Brooks’ 1983 remake of the 1942 Ernst Lubitsch dark Nazi comedy To Be or Not to Be, references The Producers’ iconic line—“Don’t be stupid, be a smarty/ Come and join the Nazi Party!”—while updating the visual language for the ’80s. Brooks’ Hitler vamps alongside feather-haired video vixens and Sprockets-esque male dancers in bare chests and suspenders, and all around it’s pretty hilarious.
A final entry in the “absurdist” category, from the early ’90s, shows how completely this approach can fail when in the wrong hands. On the British sitcom Heil Honey I’m Home!, Hitler and Eva Braun move into a house and deal with annoying Jewish(!) neighbors. This Hitler retains his mustache and uniform, and Eva looks like her historical counterpart, but the premise—“what if a hapless sitcom husband, but Hitler?”—was thin, and the pilot showed everyone that the humor inherent in the juxtaposition only stretched so far. Only one episode ever aired, and it mostly exists now as fodder for internet pop culture historians who produce articles and videos of the “did you know?” variety.
Supplemental Reading: David Denby, “Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man: Mel Brooks in His 90s,” the Atlantic, July 22, 2018.
Extra Credit: Kirsten Fermaglich, “Mel Brooks’ The Producers: Tracing American Jewish Culture Through Comedy, 1967–2007,” American Studies, Winter 2007.
Day 4: Young Hitlers
1987: Mein Kampf, play by George Tabori
2002: Max, directed by Menno Meyjes (Rent on Amazon Prime)
The sui generis example of The Producers aside, movies about Hitler in the 1970s and ’80s tended to be serious-minded, conventional biopics. But Mein Kampf, a play by Hungarian Jewish playwright George Tabori, who escaped the Holocaust as a young man by emigrating to England, while his father was killed at Auschwitz, is a long bleak joke about Hitler’s rise to power. What if, Tabori asked, it had been a Jew—in the play, a character named Shlomo Herzl—who had, out of the kindness of his heart, unintentionally boosted this penniless young veteran into politics? Tabori believed in a “laughter of despair,” writes historian Gavriel Rosenfeld, and the idea that “humor is how one copes with personal and historical catastrophes.”
There are also hints of dark humor in the largely moralistic 2002 movie Max, which is also about Hitler’s youth. The movie, starring Noah Taylor as Hitler and John Cusack as a Jewish art dealer who tries to divert him from his burgeoning political career, was a commercial failure. Maybe that was because it struggled to figure out whether it was trying to be funny or serious, or maybe that was because of how negative its press was—the Jewish Defense League called the movie “a psychic assault on Holocaust survivors.”
Supplemental Reading: Dan Cox, review of an Actors Gang Theatre production of Tabori’s play, Sept. 12, 1994.
Roger Ebert, review of Max, Jan. 24, 2003.
Extra Credit: Gavriel Rosenfeld, “Humanizing Hitler: The Führer in Contemporary Film,” chapter in his book Hi Hitler!: How The Nazi Past Is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture (2015).
Day 5: Hitler 2.0
2012: Timur Vermes, Look Who’s Back
2015: Look Who’s Back, directed by David Wnendt (Stream on Netflix)
2006–present: So, so many Downfall memes
In the novel Look Who’s Back and its film adaptation, Hitler time-travels from 1945 to the 2010s. The first-level humor is obvious—“what if Hitler, but internet?”—but the darkest parts of the satire lie in the way that Germans respond to the Führer’s second rise as a “Hitler impersonator” and then a YouTube celebrity. Hitler’s producers tolerate his insanity because he gets eyeballs; meanwhile, some Germans come to applaud his underlying message. The real-life critical consensus (some outlying naysayers aside) was that Vermes’ humor was biting enough to earn its daring premise.
So far, we’ve looked at films, books, TV, a play—works of art by individuals or groups of creators who had to have thought to themselves, at some point in the planning process, What does it mean to make fun of Hitler? The Downfall meme, a creature of the 2000s internet, is something different: The crowd, collectively, decided that “making fun of Hitler,” or at least repurposing him to very different ends, was OK. The ubiquitous parodies, which use a key sequence from the not-at-all-comedic 2004 movie starring Bruno Ganz as Hitler, draft the dictator as a mouthpiece to speak all manner of quotidian rants: about the 2008 financial crisis, about “grammar Nazis,” about Twitter outages.
The popularity of the Downfall meme, diluted by only a few dissenting opinions, made one thing clear: For many people—most people?—who are Extremely Online, the idea of “Hitler” has lost its dark gravity. That might sound positive—silly Hitler is, after all, much better than impressive Hitler—but I can’t help but worry that our Hitler parodies have come unmoored from history.
Supplemental Reading: Daniel A. Gross, “Führer Humor: The Art of the Nazi Comedy,” the Atlantic, Dec. 20, 2015.
Virginia Heffernan, “The Hitler Meme,” the New York Times Magazine, Oct. 24, 2008.
Janet Maslin, review of Vermes’ novel, New York Times, April 26, 2015.
Rebecca Schuman, review of the Look Who’s Back film, Slate, May 13, 2016.
Extra Credit: Jason Lee, “Smile, Hitler? Nazism and Comedy in Popular Culture,” chapter in Comedy and the Politics of Representation: Mocking the Weak, edited by Helen Davies and Sarah Ilott (2018).