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.