At the beginning of the recent German film Look Who’s Back, Adolf Hitler wakes up in a courtyard from a long and uncomfortable sleep. He staggers to his feet. Then he wanders the streets of Berlin, nearly colliding with a Segway tour and eventually arriving at a drab newspaper stand. Here he learns that it’s 2014, that Poland still exists, and that bars of plastic-wrapped corn syrup are sold for a currency called the Euro. It’s a strange time to be a Nazi.
Seventy years after the end of World War II, Nazi comedies have evolved into a bizarre and thriving genre of their own. Most of these films reuse the same basic joke: An impossibly powerful man does a series of impossibly silly things. In Look Who's Back, which is based on the 2012 novel by Timur Vermes, Hitler slips into a pair of mom jeans and a sunflower-yellow sweater. In Mein Führer: The Really Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler (2007), he takes a bubble bath with a toy battleship. In a spoof music video called Ich hock’ in meinem Bonker (2006), he sits naked on the toilet, singing: “World War II isn’t fun any more!”
It can be comforting to laugh at Hitler. Laughter helps audiences feel that they’ve overcome evil—that a mass murderer is not only safely locked away in the history books, but also somehow defanged. During World War II, anti-Nazi propaganda aimed to make Hitler look either incredibly evil or utterly ridiculous. Modern-day Nazi comedies have adopted the same basic tactics, from silly costumes to “Heil” jokes to caricatures of the German language. The problem with most contemporary Nazi comedies isn’t that they’re offensive or humorless. It’s that they tend to be humorous and not much else.
While it takes courage to laugh in the face of evil, most Hitler parodies leave the audience laughing instead of facing evil. Comedies that borrow from history—whether from dictators (The Interview), entire cultures (The Ridiculous Six), or religious figures (South Park, Black Jesus)—have to reckon with historical baggage, too. These works could make audiences feel more connected to the past, more aware of injustice. But to do that, they need to aim for more than just laughter.
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When Charlie Chaplin released The Great Dictator in 1940, he declared grandly that his parody had a purpose. “Pessimists say I may fail—that dictators aren’t funny anymore, that the evil is too serious,” he told The New York Times. “That is wrong. If there is one thing I know it is that power can always be made ridiculous.” The Great Dictator wasn’t pandering to an audience of Hitler-haters, however. At the time, despite German aggression in Europe, American politicians wanted to stay out of the war. Chaplin’s studio warned him that the government might censor the film; he received letters from people who threatened to cause riots or attack screenings with stink bombs. He later recalled that at the film’s opening “the laughter was there, but divided. It was challenging laughter against the hissing faction in the theater.”
Yet the resistance to The Great Dictator was exactly what made the film necessary. In one scene, Chaplin’s stand-in for Hitler dances like a greasy-haired ballerina. He accidentally pops a balloon globe, which makes him cry. “He is one little man with the whole wide, vast unconquerable world, and he thinks the world is his,” Chaplin told The Times.
Chaplin’s defense of The Great Dictator amounts to a simple theory of political satire. When his version of Hitler cries, viewers laugh, because there’s such an absurd dissonance between the historical and the hysterical Hitler. And by making viewers laugh, the film invites them to question the status quo, turning reverence for a powerful man into irreverence. With each laugh, the audience can perhaps become more resilient.
Chaplin came to believe that satire has boundaries, however. Some reviewers argued that it was irresponsible to make light of dictatorship—and he eventually agreed with that critique. “The laughter chokes suddenly and is reluctant to start again,” wrote Otis Ferguson in The New Republic. More than 20 years later, in 1964, Chaplin wrote in his 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.” In his view, certain topics are simply too horrifying to ridicule.
The arguments for and against The Great Dictator can serve as a yardstick for the uses and abuses of satire. Chaplin articulated a good reason why filmmakers shouldn’t make fun of mass murderers—but he also found a relatively elegant way to do just that. The question is whether Nazi parodies in peacetime, particularly those made in Germany, succeed at the same challenge.
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In 2004, the German production company Constantin Films released Downfall (Der Untergang), a film about the final days of Adolf Hitler’s life. Like many German war movies, it’s bleak, self-effacing, and sincere enough to seem clichéd. For most of the film, Hitler (played by Bruno Ganz) looks weary and broken. Then his advisers inform him that the shattered German military cannot protect Berlin, and Hitler erupts in a fury that echoes through his bunker.
Even if you’ve never seen the film, chances are good that you’ve at least seen this scene—or rather, this meme. Some parodists added subtitles that made it seem like Hitler was enraged by the late delivery of a pizza, or the break up of the Britpop band Oasis, or the parking situation in Tel Aviv. (This kind of clever editing wasn’t new—it was actually used to parody Nazis as early as 1941—but in 2009 it was infectious.) In the same way that the word “Nazi” can serve as shorthand for tyrannical people, Hitler is an easy target because he’s such a powerful, global, and simple symbol. When the character of Hitler screams about pizza, it’s as if evil itself is throwing a tantrum.
By taking an intensely serious subject and making it silly, Downfall parodies use the same basic formula as other Nazi comedies. As Chaplin showed, it’s possible to feel a twisted satisfaction in watching a dictator squirm. In one parody, Hitler complains about all the parodies: “I’m stuck endlessly complaining and complaining, like some whiny-ass bitch!”
On the other hand, you don’t have to look far to find echoes of Chaplin’s concern that certain topics shouldn’t be laughed at. In 2010, Constantin Films launched a legal campaign to remove “Unterganger” parodies from YouTube, claiming they simply wanted to protect their copyright, but also citing groups that considered the videos offensive. Abraham Foxman, then national head of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Associated Press: “We feel that they trivialize not only the Holocaust but World War II. Hitler is not a cartoon character.”
The company didn’t have much luck keeping Downfall parodies off the Internet. “It is a task that can never be completed. They are popping up whenever we are taking one down,” one executive told the BBC. Comedy is persistent, which might be why it’s so comforting. Hitler was defeated in 1945, but the onslaught of Hitler jokes is like a ritual celebration of his defeat.
Strangely enough, some of the videos actually echoed Chaplin’s and Foxman’s objections. In the same meta-parody where Hitler complains about Downfall parodies, Hitler shakes his fists and declares: “I thought my legacy was secure! I slaughtered millions. Cut a bloody path of destruction across Europe. And for what? So I could be the latest juvenile web fad?” By making fun of Hitler, the video suggests, we run the risk of associating him with YouTube instead of Auschwitz—with mass media instead of mass murder.
Constantin Films, like Charlie Chaplin, eventually changed its tune. In a puzzling reversal, the company signed on to produce and distribute Look Who’s Back—in which Hitler takes off his underwear at the dry cleaner’s, shoots a puppy because its yap annoys him, and becomes a YouTube star. While Chaplin moved from irreverence of the Nazis to reverence for their victims, Constantin moved from a straight-faced Nazi drama to a slapstick Nazi comedy. Look Who’s Back even parodies the very Downfall scene that the company tried to scrub from the Internet.
There are a few ways to interpret this shift. Maybe by participating in a joke they once denounced, they’re hoping to prove that they’re not a bunch of killjoys. Or, more likely, maybe they just saw an opportunity to make money from what’s become one of 2015’s most successful German films. The most interesting explanation, though, is that Look Who’s Back isn’t really a comedy about Hitler. It’s a comedy about the way Germans remember Hitler. The film is Germany’s version of Borat—a film that mixes fact and fiction, inviting real discrimination in order to lampoon it. In spite of its silliness, it makes an important argument about Germany’s relationship to its past.
The premise of Look Who’s Back is that, in 2014, Hitler comes back to life—but he seems so out of place that ordinary Germans assume he’s a kooky comedian instead of a brutal dictator. That’s a sign that World War II has receded in collective memory: Today, Nazi Germany can seem like a costume drama instead of a terrifying historical period. Early in the film, he walks through crowds of tourists at the Brandenburg Gate. Some of them giggle and take selfies with him; others act nostalgic for the 1930s.
These documentary-style scenes, which slot into the fictional scaffolding of the story, hint at a purpose behind the parody. When Hitler visits a dog breeder and muses that humans should also have breeders, the dog breeder enthusiastically agrees. When he visits members of Germany’s strongest far right-wing party, they think his costume is a hoot. Maybe it’s not such a strange time to be a Nazi.
During the climax of the film, the TV producer who discovered Hitler finally realizes that his collaborator isn’t a comedian. He’s the genuine article, the Führer himself. After a moment of horror, he decides to assassinate Hitler. But when the moment finally comes, the producer fails miserably. Hitler rubs it in. “You can’t get rid of me,” he says. “I’m a part of you.”
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Germany can’t get rid of Hitler, not because most Germans support or miss him, but because they define themselves against him. Maybe that’s the best defense of Nazi comedies. Every time Hitler dies on a movie screen, every time he’s reduced to a pathetic and bumbling fool, society reasserts its loathing for Nazism. Films that ridicule past injustice can help distance society from a history we’d rather not repeat. But that distance is also the key disadvantage of Nazi slapstick. When audience members laugh at The Great Dictator or parodies of Downfall, it can become harder to imagine the thoughts or motivations of actual Nazis.
There’s a place for that kind of irreverent humor. But as the world loses the last generation that actually remembers World War II, there’s also a place for humor that doesn’t take history for granted. Unexpectedly, Look Who’s Back tries to do just that. It ends with a reel of bystanders who wave cheerfully at the modern-day reincarnation of Hitler. As the credits roll, so do clips of neo-Nazi parades, as if to highlight how little progress the world has made.
At the beginning and end of Downfall, there’s a brief clip from an interview with Traudl Junge, who worked as Hitler’s secretary until the day he killed himself. She recalls learning after the war about the mass murder of Roma, Sinti, Jews, homosexuals, and the disabled. “But I wasn’t able to see the connection with my own past,” she says. “I was satisfied that I wasn’t personally to blame.” This, of course, is a recurring theme in German history—the alibi of the bystander, the argument that we have no responsibility for what we don’t know or can’t change.
“But one day, I went past the memorial plaque which had been put up for Sophie Scholl,” Junge continues. Scholl was executed for handing out anti-Nazi leaflets in 1943—the same year Junge started working for Hitler. “In that moment I actually sensed that it was no excuse to be young. That maybe it would have been possible to find things out,” she says.
This is the kind of intimacy and complexity that parodies of Downfall—and Nazi comedies in general—tend to edit out. And it’s of course the parodies of Downfall, not the original film, that have attracted tens of millions of views. At their best, Nazi comedies can help audiences look to the past and reinterpret the present, so that they ultimately see injustice more clearly. But at their worst, they just allow viewers to look away.