Adolf Hitler — Comedy Superstar
It can be a heady thing — murdering six million Jews and then becoming a comedy sensation. But Hitler has done it.
With tensions surging between the US and Iran, and the ongoing deadlock after the Israeli election, 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 can be seen as a predictor of Oscar success. Directed by Taika Waititi of Thor: Ragnarok fame, the film tells the story of a lonely boy in Nazi Germany who discovers his mother is hiding Jews to save them, and befriends an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler.
The director has defended his film by claiming that it didn’t depict Hitler, but a ten-year old’s imagination of him, which “doesn’t have to share anything with [the] actual Hitler.” His depiction of Hitler was essentially “a version of myself that happened to have a bad haircut and a [expletive] little mustache.”
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.
From what I’ve read, 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 wrote, “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.”
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. 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. 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 in Inglourious Basterds. But that wasn’t his first time. He did so before in Heiner Müller’s adaptation of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. There, he depicted Hitler as a petty Chicago gangster in a performance described by one person as an “astonishing grotesque … comically loathsome and rivetingly outrageous.”
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.
At Hitler’s Berghoff in the Bavarian Alps — while doing research for a new book — my family and I witnessed one apparent fan pack up a brick in his pocket. Toward the end of that summer’s trip to World War II sites, 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 persons 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 Der Führer line was so popular that it was expanded to include more than 54 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. 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, and sympathy for others.
But the truth is that if we don’t hate evil, we will eventually tolerate it. For that reason, the Bible demands, “Those who love God hate evil!”
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 their work doesn’t chip away at the hatred good people around the world must feel when they think about Hitler. It certainly makes Jews like me deeply uncomfortable, and justifiably so.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “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.