In 2010, the German production company Constantin Films launched a campaign to remove a group of parody videos that had been proliferating on YouTube—parodies of the Constantin film Unterganger, or Downfall. The movie earnestly documented the final days of one Adolf Hitler; the parodies, true to form, took those final, angry days and made them the subject of sassy jokes. (“BUT YOU SAID I COULD HAVE DIBS ON THE FRONT SEAT.”) Constantin’s objections, Daniel Gross notes in his rich history of “the art of Nazi comedy,” were based mostly on copyright; the company’s suit also cited, however, the general offensiveness of satirizing the man for whom “the banality of evil” was coined. As Abraham Foxman, then the head of the Anti-Defamation League, said of the videos: “We feel that they trivialize not only the Holocaust but World War II. Hitler is not a cartoon character.”
Well. You know who else is now treating Hitler as the subject of parody? Yes: Constantin Films. The company, last year, signed on to produce and distribute a new, feature-length film about Hitler: a satire called, in English, Look Who’s Back. The film—based on the 2015 book of the same name—goes, basically, like this: Hitler doesn’t die. Instead, he wakes up in his bunker in roughly the present day, and is made to navigate the world that he helped, however circuitously, to bring about. The satire, in the tradition of Borat and The Interview and so many similar parodies-of-power, gets a lot of its humor from its placement of Hitler in situations of banal modernity (at the dry cleaner’s, learning how to use a computer, becoming a YouTube star, etc.). And it uses those situations to make a point not just about Hitler himself, but about the world in which he operates. (“Look Who’s Back,” Daniel Gross notes, “even parodies the very Downfall scene that the company tried to scrub from the Internet.”)
The film, out in October, has been a sensation in Germany. Which may help to explain why, this week, Constantin signed a deal with Netflix to distribute Look Who’s Back in the U.S. The film will come to the streaming service in early April. (Insert a “Springtime for Hitler” joke here, if you’d like.) And with it will come questions, chief among them: Are Americans ready for a cheeky comedy about Adolf Hitler?
On the one hand, sure. The U.S. has a long history of both the production and the consumption of Hitler jokery, from Disneyfied World War II propaganda films to Tom and Jerry to The Great Dictator to The Producers to Monty Python to, today, South Park and those only-semi-serious “would you kill Baby Hitler?” polls and the even-less-serious website www.catsthatlooklikehitler.com. They have all, in their way, taken for granted the idea that satire is a form of power: that to mock Hitler is to de-legitimize him. That the distance required of humor is the same distance that will relegate Hitler and his horrors to the past. That to mock History’s Greatest Monster is to claim a kind of victory over him.
“In Germany, where Mein Kampf was recently republished for the first time since the end of World War II,” Vanity Fair’s Katey Rich points out, “being able to laugh at Hitler comes with incredible catharsis.” The same may well be true of the U.S.
But that ability will also come, likely, with cogitation. And conversation, and—as Constantin’s initial posture toward Hitler humor suggested—controversy. “Hitler,” after all, is not just Hitler, the historical person; the name and the image and the ghost, today, also bring with them a host of thorny questions and tensions about freedom of speech and the constraints of memory and the moral limits of laughter. The book version of Look Who’s Back, The New York Times’s Janet Maslin notes, “generated endless essays asking whether it’s acceptable to laugh at ... Hitler jokes.” The movie, available on Netflix next to episodes of Frasier and The Great British Baking Show, will very likely do the same.
Those essays may mention the fact that Charlie Chaplin famously came to regret the role he played in creating The Great Dictator. (He admitted in his 1964 autobiography, “Had I known of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”) The essays may echo Abraham Foxman’s argument, objecting to the meme-ification of Hitler, that it is offensive—to individuals, to history—to turn history’s greatest monster into a cartoon. They may come to a conclusion that is both unsatisfactory and ultimately true: that it’s acceptable to laugh at Hitler jokes if they are funny. They may turn Hitler humor into a tautology.
If they do, though, they will also highlight the extent to which satire itself has become—and, of course, always was—a platform for moral exploration. They’ll take for granted the progressive power of parody. They’ll assume what any casual watching of The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live or Comedy Central will quickly reveal: that jokes, in the age of Internet-aided conventional wisdom—takes and counter-takes, tumbling together until some warm takeaway emerges—are not merely vehicles for humor. They’re also vehicles for argument. Comedy, today perhaps more than ever, has ethical statements to make. Chris Rock and his race jokes. Amy Schumer and her rape jokes. Tig Notaro and her cancer jokes. And on and on. They may be funny; more to the point, though, they force their audiences to ask questions like, “How far is too far?” and “How much is too much?” They invoke Hallin and Overton. They test the limits of respectful silence. They replace the hash mark in #toosoon with a question mark.
Look Who’s Back, for its part, will likely do the same. It will, very likely, make its audience cringe and laugh and feel good about cringing and feel bad about laughing. It will treat Hitler, just like those Downfall memes did, as a “cartoon character.” But it will force its audience, and the rest of us, to consider what it means for Adolf Hitler to be, on top of everything else, a joke.