In Review – Dead Funny

Book: Rudolf Herzog, Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany (tr. Jefferson Chase) (2011)

Though the Nazi regime brought about human misery and death on a massive scale, it is surprising to learn that humour still existed and indeed flourished during this dark era. In Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany, German director Rudolf Herzog (son of filmmaker Werner Herzog) examines the very broad issue of comedy and the Third Reich.

Despite the possible penalties, artists and civilians alike used humour to understand and even mock the political situation. Dead Funny describes Nazi efforts to silence its critics and profiles several actors, cabaret artists, and ordinary Germans who were subjected to interrogations, imprisonment, and even death for making jokes about the Nazi government. For example, Berlin cabaret performer Werner Finck had made a career of ridiculing Hitler and the Nazis. He was often under surveillance as he performed and would joke about not being allowed to talk, even offering to speak his lines more slowly so that Gestapo agents in the audience could more easily record his words. Finck only escaped the clutches of Propaganda Minister Goebbels by joining the military, thereby surviving the war.

Other satirists and comedians were persecuted because they were Jewish, supported left-leaning politics, or were in some manner at odds with Nazi values. Among them were screen actors who suddenly found that they were no longer offered film contracts and cabaret entertainers left with no venue in which they were allowed to perform. Many of these were arrested and sent to concentration camps or forced into exile. One case is particularly tragic: that of Jewish comedian, actor, and director Kurt Gerron. Gerron had fled to Holland in order to avoid persecution by the Nazis. But when the Germans invaded the country, Gerron was sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp?and forced to perform in comedies and direct a Nazi documentary about the camp. Eventually he was sent to Auschwitz, and like many other talented German performers of his generation, perished there.

There are also cases in which ordinary Germans were punished by the Nazi state for making political jokes. Although an individual’s repeated failure to adhere to Nazi values and increased radicalization as the tide of war turned against Germany made execution a more likely punishment, Herzog emphasizes that death sentences were restricted to ?exceptional? cases. This point, however, gets lost among the many deaths that Herzog documents, and the title Dead Funny only helps to further this misconception.

In one instance Marianne Elise K., a technical draftsperson in a Berlin armaments factory, was denounced for sharing a wisecrack with her colleagues:

?Hitler and Göring are standing atop the Berlin radio tower.
Hitler says he wants to do something to put a smile on Berliners? faces.
So Göring says: ?Why don’t you jump???

The fact that Marianne K.’s husband had been killed in the war failed to help her case. The People’s Court handed down a death sentence.

Overall, Dead Funny is both interesting and thought-provoking. It is very broad in its scope; in addition to describing anti-Nazi humour originating in Germany itself, it also discusses Allied efforts to ridicule Hitler, BBC broadcasts in German, and the Nazis? own brand of humour. The author also devotes a chapter to the dark humour shared among Jewish people even as they were facing persecution and annihilation.

One of the most thought-provoking questions Herzog raises is whether it is acceptable to laugh at Hitler and his regime. While this may seem like a rather surprising question for North Americans, who may be familiar with the 1960s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes or countless comedy skits featuring stereotypical Nazi interrogators, the situation is different in Germany itself. According to Herzog Germans, burdened by their past, do not want to be accused of trivializing horrific events. Furthermore, unlike here, where anyone can purchase Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Germany has strict laws about accessing and displaying items associated with the Nazi regime. Given this backdrop, German cartoonist Walter Moers? 1998 spoof of the Nazis in his Adolf, the Nazi Sow was indeed groundbreaking, an event seen by Herzog as a sign of increasing freedom within Germany to ridicule rather than simply demonize Adolf Hitler.

Internationally, filmmakers are no longer completely constrained by earlier conventions in which the Holocaust could only be portrayed with faithful accuracy. Most strikingly, in Roberto Benigni’s 1997 film La Vita e Bella (Life is Beautiful) a Nazi concentration camp?resembling Auschwitz, as Herzog points out?becomes the setting for a comedy.

Dead Funny forced me to consider the manner in which the Holocaust has been presented in film and other media, and what sort of treatment it may receive in the future. With the passage of time and with fewer perpetrators and victims still living, will new artistic representations of the Holocaust continue to develop, including the use of comedy? Or will Benigni’s film remain the only internationally successful film that uses humour in the portrayal of Hitler’s Final Solution?

Although it is a translation, Dead Funny flows quite well. However, it could have used more careful editing of its content. Perhaps the book’s most jarring error is in reporting that Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1944. It is surprising that an error concerning an event which is so closely linked to the final few days of the war and occurred in 1945 was not detected prior to the book’s publication.

These oversights, however, should not distract readers from an otherwise well-researched and well-presented analysis on a subject That’s rarely discussed.