When We Laugh at Nazis, Maybe the Joke’s on Us

On Second Thought

More than a half-century after Mel Brooks made “The Producers,” mocking Hitler isn’t what it used to be.

Credit…Embassy Pictures

A.O. Scott

Even if Max Bialystock hadn’t gone to prison for embezzling from the backers of his hit Broadway show, trouble would have found him one way or another. Didn’t he slap his business partner, the accountant Leo Bloom, after dousing the poor man with a glass of water during working hours? And while Max’s hanky-panky with Ulla, the receptionist, may have involved consenting adults, his whole business model was based on trading sexual favors with senior citizens for money. If ever a man in show business was in need of cancellation, it was surely Max Bialystock.

Not a chance! Max is a beloved figure who has, for more than 50 years, inspired not outrage but delight. The man is an institution, an archetype. He turned a song-and-dance spectacle about Hitler into a Broadway smash. Hitler! Max’s exploits have been chronicled in a 2005 movie and a long-running stage musical, both called “The Producers” and both starring Nathan Lane. Long before that, Max was played by Zero Mostel, in the first film directed by Mel Brooks. That original “Producers,” released in 1967 with a very young Gene Wilder as Leo, was a staple of my youth.

Now that fascism seems to be in bloom once again, it is a good time to revisit “Springtime for Hitler,” the show that made Bialystock and Brooks into household names. But like Leo when he first shuffles into Max’s office to audit the books, I’m a little nervous at the prospect.

The question of how much and what kind of fun it’s permissible to have with Nazis never goes away, and the resurgence of right-wing extremism around the world makes the question newly uncomfortable. When “Jojo Rabbit” showed up at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the fact that it played Hitler at least partly for laughs — with the director, Taika Waititi impersonating a goofy, gangly, almost lovable Führer — you could hear the wincing from across the border. The relative innocuousness of the film (which won the audience award at the festival) doesn’t entirely dispel the uneasiness around it.

If you’re fooling around in the costume of history’s most notorious genocidal maniac, you’re working in proximity to a powerful taboo. Which is exactly what makes Hitler humor irresistible, in particular for Jewish comedians like Brooks and Waititi. (Brooks dressed up as the Führer not in “The Producers,” but in a 1978 television special called “Peeping Times” and then in the 1983 remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be.”) Such cosplay represents a form of exorcism, a way of appropriating the symbols of terror and hatred and stripping them of their power by exposing their absurd, idiotic banality.

The goose-step clowning in “The Producers” has a long pedigree. The film premiered two years into the run of “Hogan’s Heroes” on CBS, a madcap, Emmy-nominated comedy about a German P.O.W. camp in World War II. One of the prisoners would sometimes dress up as the Führer to bamboozle the hapless commandant, Colonel Klink, and his bumbling minion, Sergeant Schultz. Those guys were always being bamboozled, though Hogan and his pals never did manage to escape.

It was sometimes hard for a kid watching reruns of “Hogan’s Heroes” — as I did nearly every weekday afternoon that Gerald Ford was president — to square the foolishness of Klink and Schultz with the genocidal monstrosity of the real Nazis. Surely it’s in bad taste to take evil so lightly. But in 1967, when “The Producers” came out, World War II was still within living memory for many adults, and so was a wartime tradition of mocking the enemy. Brooks, who attacked the history of comedy with scholarly diligence, was following in the footsteps of two of the great comic minds of old Hollywood: Charles Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch.

Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” (1940) turned Hitler — thinly disguised as Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomania — into a blustering, pompous clown, surrounded by snakes and toadies, drunk on ugly fantasies of world conquest. Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be” (1942), set mainly in Poland just before and right after the German invasion in 1939, takes a less fantastical route to a similar destination.

These movies insist that what will defeat fascism — at the time a hope, not an assumption — is not so much military might or political cunning as an attitude that could be called the spirit of comedy itself. The fatal weakness in Hynkel, and in the officious SS men who spoil the fun in Lubitsch’s Warsaw, is their humorlessness. The simple, decent fallibility of the Jewish barber Chaplin also plays (a variation on his Little Tramp persona) is the opposite of the dictator’s buffoonish megalomania. The joke lies in the way the little guy impersonates the big shot, laying bare the empty grandiosity of his will to power.

Imposture is the ethical key to Nazi-mocking, a way of revealing the vanity and stupidity of people who insist above all on their own deadly seriousness. Bullies beg to be humiliated, and comedians are uniquely equipped for the task. In “To Be or Not to Be,” members of a Warsaw theater troupe pretend to be high-ranking Gestapo officers and Nazi operatives, and even Hitler himself. This ability to play, to pretend, to parody isn’t just a matter of professional training. The artistry of the actors — their ability to improvise and crack wise in potentially lethal circumstances — is what separates them from their foes. If the Germans were to win, all the fun would go out of the world.

The Germans didn’t win, of course, but unspeakable things happened anyway. With the terrible knowledge of hindsight, the gentleness of “The Great Dictator” and the high spirits of “To Be or Not to Be” take on a special kind of poignancy. Chaplin and Lubitsch saw the darkness clearly, but they could not yet measure its full depth and scale. Some of the jokes can make you wince. A vain German commandant is tickled to learn — from a fake source — that his nickname back in Berlin is “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.” “We do the concentrating, and the Poles do the camping,” he says with a chuckle.

It wasn’t the best joke in 1942, and it sounded even more awkward in 1983, when Mel Brooks recycled it in his affectionate, puzzling remake of “To Be or Not to Be” (directed by Alan Johnson, who had choreographed “Springtime for Hitler” in “The Producers”). That film is less celebrated than the Lubitsch version, but it did spawn a video that lives on YouTube, with a rapping, break-dancing Hitler — a miniature tour de force of bad taste that reprises an immortal rhyme from “Springtime”: “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty/Come and join the Nazi Party.”

It’s funny because everyone knows the opposite is true. The only “real” Nazi in “The Producers” is Franz Liebkind, the author of “Springtime for Hitler,” a German exile too pathetic for any war-crimes tribunal, who keeps pigeons on the roof of his Greenwich Village tenement. His heartfelt tribute to the Führer is taken up by Bialystock and Bloom because they are looking for a surefire flop, a work of such stupendous bad taste that audiences will flee in disgust. But it’s precisely because no one could possibly take Liebkind and his ilk seriously that Max and Leo fail so spectacularly at their attempted failure. Because Franz is manifestly an idiot, any even moderately smart person could only take the show as satire. The triumph of “The Producers” is to suppose a world where the anxious hopes of Chaplin and Lubitsch have come true — where fascism has been expunged, its spell permanently broken by humanism and humor. That’s the world of “Hogan’s Heroes,” too, and also of “Jojo Rabbit.”

But what if we don’t live in that world? For a long time, laughing at historical Nazis has seemed like a painless moral booster shot, a way of keeping the really bad stuff they represent safely contained in the past. It never occurs to Max Bialystock that the audience might respond to “Springtime” as satire, and it never occurred to Mel Brooks that the show might be effective propaganda.

“The Producers” is naughty and silly, but it works to establish boundaries rather than transgress them. It plays with a taboo that it is ultimately committed to upholding. Whether a show like “Springtime” represents absolute bad taste or delicious good fun, it exists in a place far removed from the norms of civilized, rational discourse. A patron can be offended or amused by its nutty Nazis, but no one in their right mind — no one who isn’t operating at the mental and moral level of Franz Liebkind — could find it touching or persuasive. The very possibility of an actual, effective, politically empowered Nazi, a Nazi who could pose a real danger, is unthinkable. And the job of “The Producers” is to keep it that way.

Maybe that was always wishful thinking. In any case, recent history shows that the medicine of laughter can have scary side effects. Fascism has crawled out of the dust pile of history, striking familiar poses, sometimes with tongue in cheek. It has been amply documented that “ironic” expressions of bigotry and anti-Semitism — jokes and memes on social media; facetious trolling of the politically correct; slurs as exercises in free speech — can evolve over time into the real thing. A dress-up costume can be mistaken for a uniform, including by its wearer.

Meanwhile comedians advertise their racist jokes as bold challenges to the tyranny of political correctness, and brand their bigotry as boundary-pushing, taboo-busting bravery. The anti-authoritarian spirit of comedy that flows through Lubitsch and Chaplin to Brooks and his heirs is twisted away from its humanist roots.

At the same time, authoritarian leaders prove impervious to satire. Laughing at how stupid, pompous or corrupt they are doesn’t seem to break the spell of their power. The joke may be on those who persist in believing otherwise. If it were revived today, “Springtime for Hitler” might wind up being a hit for the wrong reasons. Or it might flop because those old Hitler jokes aren’t as funny as they used to be.

I don’t blame Max Bialystock. I find myself envying his misguided faith in the high-minded good taste of the public, even as I cherish Mel Brooks’s belief in our irrepressible vulgarity. Part of me looks back fondly on the days when fascism seemed like history’s dumbest joke. And part of me thinks we’d all have been better off if the opening-night audience at “Springtime for Hitler” had stormed out of the theater in a rage, leaving Max and Leo to make their way safely to Brazil.

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