At the end of the film, the barber, played by Chaplin, is impersonating the dictator Adenoid Hynkel, also played by Chaplin. He is giving an impassioned plea for peace, understandably out of character for the dictator. At this moment, Chaplin asserts himself into the speech, breaking through the narrative and addressing the audience with a message of universal peace. Even if the film does not laugh at the suffering of the Jews, knowledge of the tragedy precludes laughing.
Hence, the film becomes problematic for Chaplin. It also is emblematic of why controversy surrounds any comedic treatment of the Holocaust. American and British films have consistently portrayed Adolf Hitler and the Nazis as comical figures, monstrous murderers, to be sure, but murderers whose cinematic persona occasions laughter rather than fear, dismissal rather than acceptance, exception rather than rule.
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Portrayals of Hitler as a foolish and silly tyrant, and of his officers and private army as bumbling idiots have multiple sources. Contributing to this received caricature was the manner in which the Nazis presented themselves to the world: as goose stepping, salute happy and staccato-voiced bullies.
Political cartoons, jokes and films lampooned Nazi self-presentation as soon as the Nazis came to power. His Hitler so captured the cinematic imagination that it influenced the received image of later generations. It is the goal of this essay to describe how portrayals of Hitler and the Nazis have not changed much over the past sixty-five years and to examine how the retrospective knowledge of the outcome of Nazism is problematic when using it to produce laughs.
Perhaps it is only natural that artists and the public perceived Hitler and the Nazis as Chaplin portrays Hynkel, given the National Socialist tendency for self-posturing. In any event, comedic references to Nazis and fascists as pompous bumblers predates Chaplin, beginning during the Third Reich and reaching to the present. During the war, laughing at Hitler had ambivalent origins. By forming a bond among those participating, the chant gives them the vantage point of superiority. At the same time, it renders the enemy ineffectual, at least in a virtual sense.
For cartoonist David Low , who drew political cartoons for the London Evening Standard , depicting the Nazis as ridiculous was more effective in building morale than showing them in a position of power:. That kind of thing no doubt had the effect of building up the idea that Hitler was too, too, too powerful to resist. Not all humorous references to Hitler had as obvious a political intent of mobilizing opinion against the Nazis.
In the film His Girl Friday Howard Hawks, , for example, Hilde Johnson Rosalind Russell laments that newspapers are not writing about Adolf Hitler and the Nazis but prefer instead the sensation of crime reporting.see
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The gag in His Girl Friday , placed as it is in a discourse on sensationalizing the news with trivia, illustrates the historical moment of It focuses on the real and present threat Nazi Germany was presenting to the security of the world, and the reluctance of many to perceive that danger, preferring instead to relocate the Nazis from the front page to the comic section.
His Girl Friday reveals the tendency of humour to disarm and enhance its referents simultaneously. The line foregrounds Hitler, the historical figure, and relates him to a real historical situation existing outside the movie. He is a definite threat. The movie also transforms Hitler into a non-threat, relegating him to the comics and giving him the gravitas of Blimpy in Popeye or the Captain in the Katzenjammer Kids, popular strips of the day. Jules White, Even as viewers laughed, they must recognize that the threat of Nazism was not a trivial matter.
Moreover, as the film came out two years after The Great Dictator , To Be or Not to Be holds more immediate emotional punch than the earlier. After the war, in spite of the earnestness with which films from Hollywood and other film industries treated the Third Reich, the Nazis remained the butt of visual gags, but without reference to the Holocaust or even elements of Jewish persecution. Other episodes revolved around spies, the German underground, and escape plans, to highlight the cleverness of the prisoners in thwarting their German captors.
The one episode to feature a minority, The Gypsy , used the movie stereotype of fortune-tellers for sit-com laughs, overlooking the degree to which the Sinti and Roma, as the ethnic group is referred to in Germany, were persecuted. The boldness of the concept, the fact that writer-director Brooks is Jewish, and the Yiddish jokes won over critics and viewers. Above all, by foregrounding the awareness of Nazi crimes within the plot, Brooks was able to forestall criticism. The film does not so much trivialize the Third Reich as it does the attempts by popular culture to trivialize the Third Reich.
Brooks had his cake and ate it too. Few post-war German films dealt with portraying the general events of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. Those that did were warnings about repeating mistakes of the past rather than parodies of the Nazis or outright comedies. Moreover, fewer still included portrayals, however brief, of Adolf Hitler, although his speeches served as points of reference in those films that did try to come terms with the past.
Humour was notably absent in any of the German movies dealing with the Third Reich. For the most part, film comedies with Hitler as the focus are absent in the decades after the war. Parody is not, especially as the years pass. His over-the-top visual tour de force is aimed at exposing the inherent fascism within people that allowed a man like Hitler to come to power. The film is an allegory in the format of a Wagnerian Germanic epic. At a time when Germany was only beginning to address the Holocaust in films in a serious tone 25 , Syberberg was finding humour and absurdity in Hitler, the Nazis and the consequences of the Third Reich.
The film presents a series of vignettes that portray Hitler Peter Kern variously as clown and as marionette, sometimes with absurd and controversial results. Kern recites the monolog that Beckert delivers in his defence after being captured and tried in a kangaroo court. Carried to its conclusion, the monologue implies that Hitler murdered the Jews because an inner voice compelled him to. Moreover, by conflating the serial killer and the perpetrator of the Holocaust, Syberberg suggests that Hitler seduced the German people with superficial promises of happiness, just as Beckert lured his child victims with balloons and toys.
At the same time, the director suggests that it is impossible to find reasons for the fascination that Germans in the Third Reich had and later generations still have for the German leader and Nazism. The first full-fledged comedy on Hitler appeared in Schlingensief blends the cinematic portrait of Nazi and fascist perversion found in these films with the comedic distortions of Chaplin, Horwitz, and Brooks. The controversy that ensued after its release suggests how sensitive the subject of Hitler and laughter was in Germany at the time.
Nonetheless, the German film jury responsible for nominating a German film in the foreign film category of the Academy Awards caused a minor sensation by passing over the film. They argued that the film was directed by a Pole, not a German. Arguments cantered on whether the film was being slighted because it dealt with the Holocaust, an issue that critics of the decision felt Germany might not be ready to confront, or quality, which the jury was claiming. Bittere Ernte had also dealt with the Holocaust, without obviating its acceptance as a German film, suggesting that the topic by itself was not behind the negative decision.
Yet, the film won a Golden Globe as Best Picture, suggesting its cinematic value. Bittere Ernte is a dramatic film, belonging to the group of serious works that are often cited as helping Germans come to terms with the past. In contrast, Europa Europa finds humour in a young man who tries to undo his circumcision, suggesting he is not only hiding from but for a time denying his Jewish identity. By the s, Germans, especially young adults, seemed ready to laugh at Hitler and the Nazis.
Serdar Somuncu, a Turkish-German stand-up comic, lampooned both Hitler and Joseph Goebbels in his comedy club routines. Writer and critic Josh Schonwald describes a Somuncu performance as follows:. This was Germany. The twenty and thirty-somethings in the studio audience, the children and grandchildren of Nazi lieutenants and SS troops, were not just laughing at Hitler, they were roaring. Second, Somuncu empties the word Hitler of any lexical meaning and the name of any historical significance by repeating it until it is reduced to phonemic sounds.
Goebbels, who senses the threat to his life, tries to kill Geduldig but ends up merely changing places with him. No one suspects the switch except Magda Goebbels Eva Mattes , who convinces Geduldig to murder her husband, as she is in love with Hitler. Klaus Detlef, der Jonny Clown. Professor as Frank Schenk. Gerichtsmediziner as Frank Otto Schenk. Dietrich Wirtz.
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Starks Vater. M as Franz-Otto Schenk. Herr Asmus. TV Movie as Frank Schenk. Ordonanz as Frank Schenk. Herr Lehmann as Frank Schenk. Schmidt as Frank Schenk. Oberleutnant Langner as Frank Schenk. Betreuer as Frank Schenk. Axel as Frank Schenk. Jochen Piontek as Frank Schenk. Julius Helfrich as Frank Schenk. Lutz Becker as Frank Schenk.
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