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When Is Dressing Up Like Hitler Okay?

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The difference between “good” Nazi humor and bad is about who gets to be the butt of the joke.

“There can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” said Theodor Adorno. One can only imagine what he might of said about laughter. Black humor, dark humor, gallows humor; none of this is new to human cultures. Legendary American Jewish director Mel Brooks became famous in part because of his jokes about Hitler and the Nazis. Perhaps his most notable contribution is the 1967 film turned Broadway musical The Producers, for which he was awarded an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. His comedy was an expression of American Jewish attitudes towards their own pain and had a lasting impact on comedians and actors of all backgrounds. So what made it “okay” for him to turn human suffering into laughter?

First of all, Mel Brooks never made fun of the pain of innocent victims. His targets were always the oppressors and while his comedy showed them to be ridiculous, they were still capable of horrible things. Brooks was born in 1926 in New York under the name Melvin Kaminsky (his later name change hints at the anti-Semitism in the post-war American entertainment industry). During WWII he served in the Army Corps of Engineers clearing land mines. His family were never direct victims of the Nazis, but he was nonetheless very familiar with the threat that they posed.

In The Producers the character of Franz Liebkind, a former Nazi, poses little threat at the beginning of the film but is later driven into a murderous rage and is only thwarted by a comedy of errors. Even in the play within the film, the stage Hitler is seen singing about the destruction he has rained down on Europe. In the 1983 film, To Be or Not to Be (itself a remake of a 1942 film), the actors in a play that lobs comedic insults at the Fuhrer are doing so with a direct threat to their lives. It is the victims, or the potential victims, in much of Mel Brooks’ comedy that are making the jokes at someone else’s expense.

There is a logic and order to Brooks and his Hitler jokes, and there are times when he has felt that it has gone wrong. In a 2015 interview with Spiegel, he describes the pushback he received from other Jews and what makes him different from Robert Benigni and his Oscar winning Holocaust comedy film Life Is Beautiful.

Brooks: The Jews were horrified. I received resentful letters of protest, saying things like: “How can you make jokes about Hitler? The man murdered 6 million Jews.” But “The Producers” doesn’t concern a concentration camp or the Holocaust.

SPIEGEL: Can you really separate Hitler from the Holocaust?

Brooks: You have to separate it. For example, Roberto Benigni’s comedy “Life Is Beautiful” really annoyed me. A crazy film that even attempted to find comedy in a concentration camp. It showed the barracks in which Jews were kept like cattle, and it made jokes about it. The philosophy of the film is: people can get over anything. No, they can’t. They can’t get over a concentration camp.

SPIEGEL: But the film has deeply moved a lot of people.

Brooks: I always asked myself: Tell me, Roberto, are you nuts? You didn’t lose any relatives in the Holocaust, you’re not even Jewish. You really don’t understand what it’s all about. The Americans were incredibly thrilled to discover from him that it wasn’t all that bad in the concentration camps after all. And that’s why they immediately pressed an Oscar into his hand.

Purpose is important when creating a Hitler joke, and in this same interview, Brooks describes his purpose as “revenge”. I might also like to posit that Hitler jokes may serve another purpose when they are seen to be made by Nazi victims: empathy. In To Be Or Not To Be it is easier to feel so strongly for the characters lampooning their oppressors because they have made us laugh. This is different from eliciting feelings of pity, which tends to reduce victims to objects and pretty much kills any piece of art or cultural expression.

What are your favorite Nazi jokes and Jewish jokers?

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