For the past two years, Downfall, a 2004 German film about Hitler’s final days, has been adopted for very funny YouTube parodies. The parodies replaced the original dialogue with phony subtitles, showing Hitler ranting about everything from Xbox video games to Kanye West’s MTV Award embarrassment to Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential bid.
A favorite target of Der Fuhrer’s ire was American football player Brett Favre.
Virtually all the spoofs used the same four-minute scene: Hitler, portrayed brilliantly by German actor Bruno Ganz, unleashes an impassioned tirade berating his generals huddled in the underground bunker. The staff listens silently in an adjoining room as a furious and defeated Hitler screams insanely. The faked English subtitles queued perfectly to Hitler’s rant exemplify satire at it finest.
Upon hearing the videos had been withdrawn, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the league was delighted. “We find them offensive,” said Foxman. “We feel they trivialize not only the Holocaust but World War II. Hitler is not a cartoon character.”
Foxman is a brilliant, sensitive man with a long distinguished career fighting discrimination, supporting Jews and other minorities. But here he is wrong. Adolf Hitler has been satirized and the target of humor since World War II. And look who has been at the forefront.
IN 1940, with America still a neutral in World War II, the Three Stooges did You Natzy Spy, the first film to satirize Hitler. Hitler, played by Stooges’ leader, Moe Howard (nee Moses Horwitz, Jewish), sprinkled his diatribes liberally with Yiddish.
A year later, Charlie Chaplin made The Great Dictator, the classic film satirizing Hitler (Chaplin was not Jewish although several of his close family were). Chaplin, in a dual role, played an innocent Jewish barber mistaken for Adenoid Hynkel, a savage caricature of Hitler. Hynkel is a power mad maniac who dances with a balloon globe of the world. The film received worldwide acclaim and Hitler reportedly watched it. Despite this, it did nothing to prevent Hitler from invading Western Europe or the Soviet Union. Even satire doesn’t always work.
In 1942, Jack Benny (nee Benjamin Kubelsky, Jewish) starred in his most famous film, To Be or Not to Be, about an acting troupe outwitting the Nazis in occupied Poland. It portrays Hitler prancing around saying, “Heil, myself.” Later in the war, Looney Tunes, a Warner Brothers company (Jack Warner, nee Jacob Warner, Jewish), did a cartoon spoof of Hitler with Daffy Duck conking him on the head during a party rally.
The ne plus ultra of Hitler parody came in 1968 when Mel Brooks (né Melvin Kaminsky, Jewish) made The Producers. Its featured number, a Hollywood classic, is the lavish musical, “Springtime for Hitler.” In the movie, casting for Hitler is problematic until the perfect Hitler appears, Lorenzo St. Dubois, aka LSD, a drug addled hippie played by Dick Shawn (nee Richard Schulefand, Jewish), who bangs out on the piano, “One and one is two, two and two is four, I feel so bad ’cause I’m losing the war.” The film spawned a popular musical and spinoff movie (which unfortunately failed to reprise LSD as Hitler).
Coincidentally, last week Brooks received a long overdue star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Among all the funny movies Brooks has made the unquestioned choice for ceremony’s tribute movie was The Producers.
Brooks once explained his view of Hitler: “I was never crazy about Hitler... If you stand on a soapbox and trade rhetoric with a dictator you never win... That’s what they do so well: They seduce people. But if you ridicule them, bring them down with laughter, they can’t win. You show how crazy they are.”
Brooks’s sentiments were reiterated by the director of Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel, who actually enjoyed the parodies and was not responsible for having them removed from YouTube. Hirschbiegel said, “The point of the film was to kick these terrible people off the throne that made them demons, making them real and their actions into reality. I think it’s only fair if now it’s taken as part of our history, and used for whatever purposes people like. If only I got royalties for it, then I’d be even happier.”
History has shown Hitler to be the perfect foil for satire, unlike other murderous totalitarian dictators. YouTube parodies of Stalin aren’t funny. No one will make a film satire of Mao or Pol Pot. Perhaps it is the distinctive features that made Hitler so attractive to the Nazis, and so terrifying and dreadful to the rest of the world – the mustache, the uniform, the salute, the impassioned oratory – that compel satire today.
Foxman’s concerns, and those of other Holocaust survivors, are
understandable and admirable (personal disclaimer, several of my
distant relatives were Holocaust victims). But the enormity of Hitler’s
crimes is not forgotten when he is made fun of. With no disrespect to
those innocents murdered, Chaplin, Benny, The Stooges, Brooks and now
YouTube Downfall have demonstrated that, in a sad and tragic way, it is
possible to laugh at Adolf Hitler.
By the way, have you heard the one about the two Jewish assassins who
wait with pistols for Hitler outside his favorite restaurant? Every day
Hitler shows up at 3 p.m. for tea and cakes. When Hitler doesn’t show
up that afternoon at the appointed hour, one assassin says to the
other, “Gee, I hope nothing has happened to him.”The writer was physician-director of the Medical Intensive Care at Cook
County (Chicago, Illinois) Hospital for nearly 30 years. He is a
lecturer and has been a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune
op-ed page. His work has also appeared in the New York Times and the
Chicago Sun-Times. He was one of Harrison Ford’s technical advisors and
one of the role models for the character he played in the movie, ‘The
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