“This one’ll kill ya! I just flew into Dachau, and boy, are my arms tied!”
Pardon my ham-handed irreverence and punning, as I imitate a hypothetical Henny Youngman doing shtick in a Nazi-era comedy club. But after reading Rudolph Herzog’s Dead Funny with mixed laughter and gasps, head-shaking incredulity and sagely nodding confirmation of the best and worst that humanity has to offer, I find myself channeling the Three Stooges in You Nazty Spy!, John Banner (Sgt. Schultz) in Hogan’s Heroes, Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful, and John Cleese in that episode of Fawlty Towers known as “The Germans”. In short, I’m trying to use all the familiar, non-German instances of humor about the Nazis to understand this book’s revelations: a heretofore rare glimpse into the incredible pressure cooker of mortality and laughter that Herzog reveals Hitlerian Germany to have been.
The son of famed film director Werner Herzog, our scholarly yet intimately conversational author (abetted by a graceful translation from Jefferson Chase) begins by establishing the historical, albeit overlooked or distorted existence of a joking attitude in the general populace under the Nazis. He divides the period humor into various camps or stances, including supportive humor that sought to minimize or accommodate growing Nazi atrocities in plain view. This is not a book that lets Germany’s wartime citizenry off the hook. “The majority of jokes about contemporary affairs were entirely harmless and without any political message. But there was also a plethora of jokes colored by National Socialist ideology, although after World War II nobody wanted to remember these.” We soon learn that the nation did not consist solely of heroically subversive parodists, bold nightclub performers, and punchline-whispering partisans — although there were a fair number of these as well.
The second chapter provides a brief detour into the history of political humor, all the way back to the ancient Romans. Then Herzog embarks on a more or less chronological account of how jokes evolved to meet the burgeoning Nazi movement as it infiltrated every corner of the country’s existence. From Hitler’s ascension to power, through the Night of the Long Knives, to the full-bore establishment of the death camps, right up to Hitler’s bunker suicide (curiously enough, the one incident about which no jokes were apparently crafted), German humor paralleled events as they arose and were perceived.
Herzog offers scores of transcribed jokes to illuminate every point of his thesis. Most of these, he admits, fall flat as humor some seven decades after the events that birthed them. A few remain funny. But all are potent distillations of the prevailing angst and pride, fears and hopes of a nation, each one carefully affixed by Herzog to the trends and events that inspired their creation. To supplement these jokes, he also offers some great biographies of seminal, representative figures, such as the comedian-director Kurt Gerron, who ultimately perished at Auschwitz, and the insubordinate priest Joseph Müller, who, for a single joke told in a bar, was tried and executed, his family then being presented with a bill for expenses relating to his beheading!
Appealing to the aficionados of the weird and exotic, Herzog digs up the most bizarre tidbits, at times lending his catalogue a Monty Python flavor. Who could conceive of a series of propaganda films devoted to two stock characters, Tran and Helle, which echoed Highlights magazine’s Goofus and Gallant routines?
TRAN: And maybe I can tune in occasionally to foreign broadcasters. [Several dumb jokes elided]
HELLE: A good German doesn’t do things like that.
Herzog also makes brief forays into contemporary humor directed against the Nazis, such as Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator and Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be. A section on fatalistic Jewish humor is particularly poignant, and suitably rounds out the study.
And although he never mentions it — Herzog’s book first appeared in German in 2006, just on the eve of the birth of the phenomenon — the ultimate victory of humor over the Nazis must be awarded to the Internet meme of Downfall parodies, those short clips that warp Bruno Ganz’s cinematic rant into an infinite number of absurdist themes. If only a time machine existed to ship these clips back to the suffering Germans, they would have taken heart and perhaps overthrown their vile masters posthaste.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.