Adolph Hitler, comedy superstar

A dancing Hitler just shouldn’t be in the run up for an Oscar.

DIRECTOR TAIKA Waititi arrives at the world premiere of ‘Jojo Rabbit’ at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (photo credit: REUTERS)
DIRECTOR TAIKA Waititi arrives at the world premiere of ‘Jojo Rabbit’ at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 It can be a heady thing murdering six million Jews and then becoming a comedy sensation. Hurray – Hitler has done it.
With the looming threat of war with Iran and the ongoing deadlock in Israeli elections, few in the Jewish community can be blamed for not having their fingers on the pulse of all the goings-on of American popular culture. However, as antisemitism awareness becomes the brightest star in the constellation of American Jewish objectives, we’d be smart to bear down and focus. If we did we, might raise an eyebrow or two at the noticeable rise of the Hitler comedy.
Last week, the comedy film Jojo Rabbit won the people’s choice award at the Toronto Film Festival, a prize that’s seen by many as a major predictor of Oscar success. Directed by Taika Waititi of Thor: Ragnarok fame, the film tells the story of a lonely boy in Nazi Youth camp who finds an imaginary friend in a laughing, dancing Adolph Hitler. Waititi, a New-Zealand native who describes himself as a “Polynesian Jew,” plays the lovable Führer.
Having the man responsible for the murder of six million Jews hop around with children in a forest was sure to be alarming. So the director defended his film by claiming that it didn’t depict Hitler but a ten-year old’s imagining of him, which “doesn’t have to share anything with [the] actual Hitler.” His depiction of the Nazi leader was essentially “a version of myself that happened to have a bad haircut and a [expletive] little mustache.” In other words, this character didn’t even depict Hitler but was arbitrarily chosen as a sort of comic vehicle. It’s as if the writers ran out of jokes but found that Hitler was available.
Waititi’s motives may be noble. But I find his actions – as well as the subject matter of his film, which I have not seen – concerning.
While a man who is tragically the most famous personality of the 20th century (yes, evil has a perverse attraction), Hitler jokes become troubling when they’re gratuitous and overdone. The rise of an entire genre depicting Hitler as some sort of smiling, relatable uncle – however nefarious – has amplified it to a pitch that I for one can no longer ignore.
Jojo Rabbit certainly seems to overdo the unnecessary Hitler jokes. The film’s central gimmick, to quote the Guardian’s review, is “recasting Hitler as a buffoonish imaginary friend for maximum lols.” Another critic explicitly called out the jokes’ “unnecessary” feel, writing that, “as enjoyable as it is to watch, Waititi’s Hitler is actually pretty irrelevant to the film to the point where you could edit him out and nothing would really be lost, narratively speaking.” As if he couldn’t have indulged any more freely in Holocaust humor, the film’s opening credits are a roll of archival footage of “Hitler mania” set to a German rendition of The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”
BESIDES THE hilarious character with the blood of six million Jews and millions of other innocents on his hands, the film’s message is dubious, too. The young boy in the film discovers that his mother, played by actress Scarlett Johansson, is harboring a Jewish girl in their home. As Emily Burack pointed out in her review for the Jewish parenting site Kveller, the self-billed “anti-hate satire” tries to deliver the message that love conquers all.
Unfortunately, it does so by depicting a situation – the harboring of a Jew by a German family – that almost never actually occurred. For the most part, Germans voted overwhelmingly for Hitler and willingly participated at all levels of his murderous campaigns and genocide. The author who made this case most compellingly was Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his 1997 monumental study, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which the Philadelphia Inquirer called “The most important book ever published about the Holocaust.” To quote Burack writing about Germans sheltering Jews, “That’s a nice platitude that rings a little false in the face of such unfathomable historical horror.” Even if one would pair that setting with that theme, why bring Hitler into it?
Jojo Rabbit is far from the only Hitler comedy on the market. Netflix last year began running the German comedy Look Who’s Back, which has Hitler waking up in Berlin in 2014 and becoming something of a comedy superstar (then just a cultural observation, the film now seems like a prophecy). “It should be the type of laugh [where]… you’re almost ashamed when you realize what you’re doing,” director David Wnendt explained. On its own, the film is disturbing but not scandalous. But the trend doesn’t end there.
Iwan Rheon of Game of Thrones joined Rupert Grint of the Harry Potter franchise for an installment of their Showtime comedy series called Adolph Hitler, The Artist. The episode draws laughs from Hitler’s oddball social interactions, as a Fürher in incubation.
But its light-hearted depiction of Hitler was far from funny.
The comic portrayal of the most evil man that ever lived has become for some a serial role. The German actor and director Martin Wuttke achieved international fame playing Hitler for Inglorious Basterds. But, that wasn’t his first. He did so before in Heiner Müller’s adaptation of Brecht’s anti-Capitalist The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. There, he depicted Hitler as a petty Chicago gangster in a performance described as “astonishing grotesque... comically loathsome and rivetingly outrageous.” At one point in the play, Wuttke was seen “startlingly contorting his body into a human swastika.”
I’m someone who enjoys laughing as much as the next guy. But taken together, the amount of laughter surrounding Hitler, who murdered 1.5 million Jewish children, should be of concern. While Hitler can, on occasion, be laughed at, the arch-murderer of Jews is ultimately not a laughing matter.
Worse yet, these films are coming in the context of a new birth of admiration for the Nazi leader.
I HAVE just completed the manuscript for my book Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell, a memoir of the three summers where I took my children to the killing fields of Europe and the major sites of the attempted genocide of the Jews. At Hitler’s Berghoff in the Bavarian Alps, we witnessed one apparent fan pack up a brick in his pocket.
Toward the end of that summer’s trip, we decided to end on a less horrifying note by visiting the landing sites in Italy used by the Allies to break apart Hitler’s empire in September 1943. On the way, we stopped at the wonderfully-preserved  ancient Greek temples at Paestum. When we got there, we were sickened to see that the local souvenir shop was selling dozens of Hitler-themed wines and beers. Andrea Lundardelli, the man responsible for these despicable products, claims the line is just good, historical fun. When we pointed out to the store owner how blatantly vile these products were to Jews and people of conscience, she told us, “People have different opinions of Hitler. Why should you force your opinion on others?”
When I looked into the company recently, I discovered that their four Der Führer line was so popular that it was expanded to include more than fifty-four different labels. Besides more than a dozen images of Hitler, labels feature Eva Braun, Rudolf Hess, Hermann Göring and others, some of them including Nazi slogans such as Deutschland über alles (Germany above all things), and Ein Volk, ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer! (One People, One Empire, One Leader!).
Apparently, after the police confiscated 20,000 of the bottles from the Der Führer line, an Italian court ruled in 2007 that the company could continue to sell them.
Of course, comic depictions aren’t always bad. Charlie Chaplin famously depicted the Nazi leader in The Great Dictator, which sought to turn the American public against the Nazis at a time when men as powerful as Joe Kennedy sought to legitimize them.
However, the amount of needlessly light-hearted portrayals of Hitler betray our society’s odd relationship with evil. While we are quick to disavow evil, we are rarely willing to hate it. On the contrary, evil serves as the object of fascination for some, sympathy for others. I’ve heard both agnostic progressives on the Left and my evangelical brethren on the Right each affirm that they do not hate Osama Bin Laden as much as they believed he needed to be killed. Each for reasons of their own decry hatred as something inherently destructive, and something they’d do best to avoid. But the belief that, say, Jesus wished for us to love our enemies – and that our enemies include those who engage in mass murder rather than the guy who steals our parking space – is a terrible distortion of the Second Temple-era Jewish preacher.
But the truth is: That which we are not willing to hate we will eventually tolerate. For that reason, the Bible demands, “Those who love God hate evil!” Because if you don’t hate evil, you might negotiate with it, as Barack Obama did with Iran, awarding them $150 billion and international legitimacy – despite their now obvious obsession with violence and their still incessant calls for a genocide of the Jewish state. You might also sympathize with terrorist murderers like Yasser Arafat, as so many on the Left are still guilty of doing. It’s not far-fetched to argue that these appealing depictions of Hitler feed into the narrative that there’s something – even some laughter – that can be redeemed from evil, whose cultural taste can slowly turn from bad to complex to a possible personal preference.
Of course, freedom of speech means that any and all of these filmmakers stand within their comic and civic rights. But it doesn’t mean that their work doesn’t chip away at the hatred that good people around the world must feel when they think about Hitler. It certainly makes Jews like me deeply uncomfortable, and justifiably so.
A dancing Hitler just shouldn’t be in the run up for an Oscar.
‘America’s Rabbi,’ whom The Washington Post calls ‘the most famous Rabbi in America,’ is the author of Judaism for Everyone and Renewal: The Seven Vital Values of the Jewish Faith. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.