Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Heil harebrain: how comedy can make villains look ridiculous

I have written before about the Criterion Collection DVDs and their use of imaginative artwork to pay homage to great movies. Last week I learnt that the Satyajit Ray classics Charulata and Mahanagar will soon be out on Criterion, but equally pleasing was a glimpse of the cover design for Ernst Lubitsch’s brilliant 1942 comedy To Be or Not to Be. The picture on the DVD package juxtaposes a famous image from Hamlet - the glum prince, primed for a soliloquy, holding Yorick’s skull in his hand - with a figure dressed in a smart Nazi uniform, so that the skull covers the Nazi's head. This image of fascism defeated, or made buffoonish, by theatre nicely catches the mood of a film about a Polish acting troupe outsmarting Hitler’s men. It also reminds me of what the critic David Thomson said: “If one side is making To Be or Not to Be in the middle of a war and the other is not – you know which side to root for.”

No intention of spoiling Lubitsch’s film for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but just as an appetiser, its opening sequence involves the apparent appearance of Hitler – alone – at a market corner in 1939 Warsaw. As he hesitantly surveys the shops and residents gape at him, a breathless voiceover – resembling nothing so much as a baseball-match commentary – goes:
“He seems strangely unconcerned by all the excitement he's causing. Is he by any chance interested in Mr Maslowski’s delicatessen? That’s impossible! He’s a vegetarian. And yet, he doesn’t always stick to his diet. Sometimes he swallows whole countries. Does he want to eat up Poland too?” 
More digs at the leader follow in the next few minutes: an actor (the man who was pretending to be Hitler in that opening scene) responds to salutes with a “Heil Myself”, and a little boy speculates that if a brandy took the name Napoleon, perhaps Hitler “will end up as a piece of cheese”.

Of course, To Be or Not to Be was scarcely the only Hollywood film of its time to lampoon the Fuehrer. One of my favourite “Hitler cameos” occurs in Preston Sturges’s 1944 comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, about a small-town girl who gives birth to sextuplets, a national record. As news spreads across America and the world, we see the dictator's furious reaction and a headline from a German newspaper reads “Hitler Demands Recount!” Tangential though the scene is to the film, it links Hitler with terminology associated with voting and democracy, presented here as a symbol of America’s moral superiority over Nazi Germany.

Around the same time, the good folks in animation were making more direct propaganda films such as the pleasingly titled Herr Meets Hare (in which Bugs Bunny accidentally tunnels to Germany while trying to find Las Vegas, and speaks incomprehensible faux-German in a shrill, Hitler-like voice), Donald Duck in Nutzi Land (the peevish Donald finds himself working in a Nazi factory, which makes him even more ill-tempered than usual) and The Blitz Wolf, which begins with the assertion “The Wolf in this photoplay is NOT fictitious. Any similarity between this Wolf and that (*!!#%) Hitler is purely intentional.”

Not all these films draw positive responses today. People are often affronted by Nazism being treated lightly in a Hollywood movie (or cartoon!), especially one that was made at a time when the very real horrors of the concentration camps were underway far across the Atlantic. One argument goes that it amounts to trivialising the Holocaust, and some things, we are told, should simply not be joked about. Well, I disagree in a broader sense with that idea – I don’t think any subject, however ugly or distasteful, should lie outside the purview of humour – but in this case the nature of the comedy serves an obviously desirable function: it strips a pompous, self-important figure of his dignity.

Recently there was a comparable scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, where a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan, the white-supremacist group, turns into farce when the members find that they can’t see properly through the little slits in their white hoods; and these are the very costumes that they think make them look so awe-inspiring! The scene drags on too long, but one can’t fault its intention: undermining evil by making it banal, then ridiculous, so that by the end the group is more klutz than klux. (Incidentally, the real history of the KKK has an equivalent for this. In the 1940s, the author William Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the group and passed on its code-words for use in a children’s radio programme about Superman; as little children – including the children of mortified Klan members – began using the “secret words” in their games, the group’s air of mystery was diluted.)

It is useful to have good satirical depictions of this sort in cinema, because there have already been films – powerful and influential and superbly made films – that have depicted evil in grand terms. Two that readily come to mind are Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will – a
document of Nazi rallies that begins with a stirring scene where Hitler is framed as a deity surveying his land from his plane before descending to make his speeches – and D W Griffith’s silent epic The Birth of a Nation, which portrayed the KKK almost as knights in shining white armour. The movies served different functions: Riefenstahl’s was explicit propaganda, made for the National Socialist Party, while Griffith – a Southerner who grew up with assumptions that we would consider very illiberal today – was possibly making an honest effort to capture the realities of a particular time. But their ability to sway audiences, to make violence and intolerance seem appealing, can’t be denied; think of Birth of a Nation audiences in 1915 watching new techniques such as fast-paced cross-cutting, which made the climactic action more rousing.

What films like To Be or Not to Be do is to provide a counterpoint by puncturing that balloon, and I’m thankful for them every time I see how fashionable it is for a certain demographic of Indian youngster (this includes a lot of management students, incidentally) to posture and claim fondness for Hitler’s Mein Kampf – a book that has long been a bestseller in India – or to express admiration for his “leadership qualities”.

That said, good comedy can have morally ambiguous consequences too, as can be seen in the viral popularity of the “Downfall spoofs” on the internet. Using a scene from the 2004 film Downfall – a serious treatment of Hitler’s final days – where the dictator becomes unhinged as he realises defeat is at hand, these videos rewrite the English subtitles to make it seem like Hitler is ranting about sundry inconveniences and oddities of the modern world: thus, “Hitler finds out that Twitter is down again” and “Hitler discovers that Oasis have split up”. Many of the results
are hysterically funny, but you might wonder about the implications: what does it say about us when a mass-murderer becomes a fellow pilgrim in expressing rage at relatively minor things? Empathy can be a tricky thing: these videos make Hitler one of us, and remind me of another exchange in To Be or Not to Be, when the director of the play expresses doubt about the effectiveness of the actor playing the dictator: “It’s not convincing. To me he’s just a man with a little moustache.” The actor replies: “But so is Hitler.”

[Did a version of this for my DNA column]


  1. I see how fashionable it is for a certain demographic of Indian youngster (this includes a lot of management students, incidentally) to posture and claim fondness for Hitler’s Mein Kampf

    Yes. There are also students who idolize Subhash Bose, an eccentric who was open to aligning with fascist Germany to beat liberal and democratic Britain!

    The other great comedy from that period that makes fun of Soviet union officials is Ninotchka. Quite a prescient and brilliant film that makes fun of the Cold War mindset even before the Cold war could begin! Ahead of its time.

    Another great political satire is ofcourse Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes that is a scathing indictment of Britain's appeasement mentality - it's interesting because the film anticipates the failure of the Munich mindset long before people even started talking about the Second World War! Nobody ever mentions this aspect of The Lady Vanishes - proof of how comedies can end up underselling their profundity.

  2. lol, loved that comment on management students. I have myself been one some years ago and I think the amount of farce, which exists in that life itself is so laughable with any and everybody thinking of becoming CEOs/CFOs and living always in an imaginary world. That scene in Annie Hall, when Woody talks about his school-mates being ambitious in a very cliched and funny way comes close! I have seen Bschool students praising Stalin :)

  3. I see shrikanth has beaten me to it again.

    I was going to say that a bigger act of political propaganda was the slew of Anglo-American films that have twisted the narrative over the years so that the World Wars weren't about "liberal and democratic Britain" (and the US, let it be said) acquiring colonies in Africa and Asia, but Brit RAF pilots and American GIs saving the Jews from a megalomaniac charismatic leader.

  4. Sorry...I meant "fascist Japan" not Germany in the comment above.

  5. I was going to say that a bigger act of political propaganda was the slew of Anglo-American films that have twisted the narrative over the years so that the World Wars weren't about "liberal and democratic Britain" (and the US, let it be said) acquiring colonies in Africa and Asia

    Wasn't Germany a colonial power as well, albeit a minor one? It's just that they were late to the race.

    Let's make no mistake about this. Germany has blood on its hands. It was the single biggest cause of two catostrophic wars which cost cumulatively close to 100MM deaths - both of which were triggered by German vanity and impulsiveness.

    Talking of British imperialism, do you mean to say a country like India wouldn't have been attacked in the 19th cen in the absence of British rule? It was the British presence which kept the Czars from plundering this country during the 19th cen. British empire was the single most important driver of relative peace in all parts of the world in the 19th cen (a very peaceful century compared to most). And I dare say American predominance has been the single most important driver of relative peace and prosperity post WWII (and hopefully in the coming century)

  6. I was going to say that a bigger act of political propaganda was the slew of Anglo-American films that have twisted the narrative

    In fact most British and American movies of the period (in the typically understated Anglo American tradition) are very soft on Hitler. He is invariably portrayed as a buffoon of sorts - an undesirable power but hardly any film spews venom!

    This is because of the very nature of diverse societies like US - where a very significant chunk of population is of German origin. Such a society cannot really afford to have racially motivated propagandist movies.

    Racial hate, black and white characterization, twisting of narratives - these are things you see in movies made in other parts of the world including India. Seldom in Hollywood or Britain.

  7. Tangential though the scene is to the film, it links Hitler with terminology associated with voting and democracy, presented here as a symbol of America’s moral superiority over Nazi Germany

    I never quite interpreted it this way to be honest! I think Hollywood cinema has always been morally ambivalent and diffident and loath to portray themselves as "morally" superior. Most Nazi portrayals in 40s movies occur in comedies. The idea in most cases is to make fun of a movement Americans cannot understand and also do the decent thing of standing by their nation at a time of War. I am not sure if Americans were confident enough about their "moral" superiority given that Germany seemed to be pretty successful in the 30s while America continued to struggle under a very severe depression.

  8. Jabberwock - any reason you omitted 'The Great Dictator'?

    Bal Thackeray was a Hitler admirer. In the early 2000s far right Hindu groups in US tried to align with Jewish nationalists (Zionists.) They both had a common enemy - Muslims. The idea crumbled when Zionists came to know of the love the right wing Hindu groups had for Fuhrer.

  9. Anon: no particular reason - I've left out other films too. But The Great Dictator is very different in tone from the Lubitsch and Sturges films. Everything Chaplin did was ultimately tinged with pathos, so it is even possible to view that famous balloon scene, divorced from context, as a depiction of a childlike dictator wistfully playing with the globe he can never truly hope to conquer. (Besides, the figure in that scene is recognisably Chaplin, despite the uniform and the resemblance to Hitler. Since he was just as well-known a real-life personality as Hitler, the effect is very different from that of a low-key character actor playing the role.)

    And in any case, the absurdist possibilities of that film are stopped in their tracks by the barber's maudlin speech at the end - which has little to do with the specific nature of fascism.

  10. Shrikanth: about that Miracle of Morgan's Creek scene - yes, that is subtextual/imaginative interpretation on my part, and the film doesn't explicitly present that idea. (The Hitler scene takes up only 2-3 seconds anyway, and is very much played for comedy.) That said, I think the idea is implicit, given that this film can be seen as both a celebration and a cautionary self-examination of the day-to-day freedoms available in a modern democracy.

  11. The best comedy I have seen involving Hitler is a Marathi play 'Mukkam Post Bombilwadi' written & directed by Paresh Mokashi (of Harishchandrachi Factory fame). In the play Hitler while flying to Japan (to get the secret of making atom bomb!) crashes on the Konkan coast in Maharashtra, in a village called Bombilwadi.

    He proclaims that he knows Marathi by saying "I know all Aryan languages". Later he is even stripped of his signature moustache by one character in the play. He is shown of short stature, constantly jumps when nobody listens, and hilarious.

    It is an absolutely hilarious play, and later when I saw Inglourious Basterds, I remembered the play, and started smiling whenever Hitler arrived in the movie. I think this is the effect you referred to as 'striping a pompous, self-important figure of his dignity'.

    The play is available on CD/DVD & I highly recommend you to watch alongside a Marathi knowing person.

  12. Shantanu: thanks! Sounds excellent - will keep it in mind.

  13. What did you think of the Mel Brooks / Anne Bancroft (?) To be or not to be?

  14. Zigzackly: I don't remember it too well - watched most of it once when I was very young and never saw it again. Don't think I was too impressed.

  15. love that montage in "morgan's creek" also! at some point there is a headline, a quote from mussolini i think, that declares "Enough is a Sufficiency!"

  16. here's a little nazi, short and stout