Laughing: Comedy in the Third Reich
Anyone read this yet? It looks like a scream. Should be the book to be seen with at shul this summer to advance one's social and romantic prospects.
Khunrum writes: "You remember the old joke: One of the last things Hitler said in his bunker before the Russians overran it -- 'Next time, no more Mr. Nice Guy.'"
Luke: "When did it come out in hardcover?"
William: "It never came out in hardcover. Academic presses are going almost completely softcover and the libraries will bind them up usually. Among the Germans, this has been going on for 30 years. They're intended for purchase by libraries. Every once in a while, an academic book [will sell widely to a general audience]. The best example is Jared Diamond of UCLA who wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and won a Pulitzer Prize. That's like having lightning strike you. Usually academic books are done on the cheap. In the theater business, there have been dozens of books done that way. The guy in NYT [Henry Alford] said the title was so bizarre, who could possibly be interested? I thought it would be very interesting."
Luke: "What kind of reactions have you gotten to Hitler Laughing?"
William: "Most people are curious. Most people assume that nobody was laughing in the Third Reich.
"In Nazi Germany, people bought theater tickets voluntarily and went to plays they wanted to see. There were a much wider range of plays to see in Nazi Germany than in the Soviet Union. In terms of genre, there were about the same plays as during the Weimar Republic. There were more productions during the Third Reich. The Nazis created a market vacuum by shutting out all these objectionable playwrights and actors and there was still a demand for these situation comedies, what you see on television... These whimsical superficial comedies were the lifeblood of theater. It wasn't until television came along that theater became an elitist activity that has to resort to things like Angels in America."
Luke: "What were Nazis laughing at?"
William: "Jewish comedies. The Weimar Republic is the era of the great comedies by Oscar Blumenthal, Franz Arnold, Bruno Frank...[from the 1880s - 1933]. They were extremely popular playwrights [of situation comedies] very similar to Neil Simon and Woody Allen. The Nazis banned them. Somebody had to write plays like them during the Third Reich."
Luke: What humor did Hitler like?
William: "We know that on his 50th birthday, Joseph Goebbels gave him 18 brand new prints of Disney cartoons and Goebbels reported that Hitler said it was the best birthday present he ever had. They had a lot of movie nights. Even in the depths of the war, about once a month, they'd watch Gone With the Wind. They really liked the production values of what they called 'Film Jews.' In his attempts to get starlets to go to bed with him, Goebbels was the biggest film Jew of them all.
"Maria Von Trapp tells an anecdote about Hitler laughing hysterically, gasping for breath for laughing, at a gross joke. (Maria von Trapp, "The Trapp Family Singers" (New York: Dell, 1949), pp. 135-137.)
Luke: "What can we learn about Hitler from what made him laugh?"
William: "You can learn that he was absolutely normal. People don't like to think that Nazis were like everybody else. They liked to laugh. They liked to see plays. It's true that Hitler was a little strange, but in many ways, he was just like you and me. People try to heroize people who stood up to Hitler as morally superior and when you get into those kinds of debates, then you look at somebody like Hitler as defective. But he wasn't defective at all. He was an evil genius.
"Yes, by all means, people who stood up to Hitler were heroic. The best example is Sophie Scholl. But there were others, especially in the theater. But they stood up to the Hitler dictatorship in non-heroic ways. Heinz Hilpert, Gustaf Gründgens, Käthe Dorsch, and dozens of others surreptitiously sought to save Jews, hide them in closets, get them across the Swiss border, and used other subterfuges that collectively undermined the regime.
"The real question is, 'Were people who did not resist Hitler collaborators with the regime?' It's a difficult question, predicated as always on a sense of moral superiority. It's easy to look back sixty years and appoint moral standing or deny it to someone else. My contention is that nobody has the moral authority to assign blame to anyone. In a similar way, everybody places Hitler in the lowest circle of Hell. On what or whose authority?"
Luke: "What was Hitler's sexuality?"
William: "As far as I can tell, absolutely straight. There's no hint of any homosexuality."
Luke: "Did he play the field?"
William: "He had affairs but he was not promiscuous. There were lots of women, particularly older women, who were madly in love with Hitler and wanted to take care of him. He cultivated that got a lot of money from them."
Luke: "Did he bang a lot of chicks?"
William: "No. It was basically Eva Braun. He could've had any woman he wanted. He could've had thousands of women. He was a rock star. He's the first modernist politician. He exploited airplane travel. In the campaign of 1932, he traveled to 100 cities a week. He left behind long-play records of his speeches. They would set them up and play them on street corners. He exploited modern technology in a way that Roosevelt only began to do, and that was only the radio.
"The prime minister of France said around 1938 that if Hitler wins, it will be the Middle Ages all over again, but without the mercy of Christ.
"Churchill said, I beg to differ. It won't be a return to the Middle Ages. It will be a new age of modern barbarity. Hitler is not going back. He's very forward-looking.
"A lot of people like to think of Hitler as reactionary. He was progressive. He had a system that today would be called affirmative action. Hitler was not a fascist. He was a socialist, a national socialist."
Luke: "What type of jokes did Hitler tell?"
William: "We don't know for sure. There's little record that he told jokes but he had a lot of bonhomie. He loved being around his men. He had no sexual attraction for them but he loved male companionship, particularly with the guys who were the early fighters who were with him in Munich in the twenties and were responsible for the revolution."
Luke: "What were the distinctive characteristics of Nazi humor?"
William: "It's very old-fashioned. It's barnyard humor. They loved jokes about pigs. There was a play, Uproar Over Iolanthe (a big old sow), there's somebody who lands in a manure pile and brings it into the house. That goes back to a play by Carl Zuckmayer in 1925 called The Merry Vineyard. The Germans are always making jokes about "mist," their word for manure. They think it's funny.
"The term 'swine' is a term of insult among the Germans. At the same time, they recognize an enormous debt to pigs [for helping them get through the winter in ancient times].
"You don't have too many jokes about people defecating but there is a ribald sexuality in these plays. OK, they're not married, but they're creating an Aryan baby. That comes right out of the Weimar Republic and before that."
Luke: "Was there anything distinctive about Third Reich humor?"
William: "No, except that it condemned it [Weimar humor] while it embraced it. People think that because the Nazis were these murderous bastards, they must've had a murderous sense of humor. No. They were not murderous bastards. They were people just like you and me. That's what's scary. People don't like to think about that.
"If you see the movie Schindler's List, the character played by Ralph Fiennes was a conscious killer. But in many ways, they weren't. If you are dealing with people you don't consider human beings... Hitler had a soft spot for children. Children loved him. But Jews and gypsies and those we would call handicapped, he didn't consider human.
"The kind of humor the Nazis liked is exactly the kind of humor we like on television today. They embraced technologies in their highways, cars. The first comedies on television were done from the Reich Chancellery in 1938. The Third Reich was way ahead of everybody in their embrace of technology."
Luke: "Did the Nazis tell Holocaust jokes?"
William: "There were an awful lot of jokes about Jews. It's pretty tacky, tasteless stuff.
"Because of my German background, I can read Yiddish better than most Jews. I just got a research grant from the Dorot Foundation [a Jewish foundation that supports research into Jewish artists] to study Stella Adler, Marlon Brando's teacher.
"There's a great book in German called 'Persecuted and Forgotten' about actors, standup comedians and cabaret players who made the mistake of making fun of Hitler... The Gestapo were ruthless about this stuff, particularly during the 1940s. Any attempt to make light of the situation or insulting of the Fuhrer, they did not have a sense of humor about that."
Luke: "What about Eichmann (kept the trains running on time) and Himmler (ran the Gestapo)? What did they find funny?"
William: "There's very little record. I'd assume that any joke at the expense of the Jews, they'd find funny.
"The only Nazi leaders with an exalted background were Albert Speer (a degree in architecture) and Goebels who had a PhD (on a novelist) from Heidelburg.
"There's no record of a musical extravaganza during the Third Reich. Hitler was shy about his persona and you would never even think about putting a character like him in a play. He was much too serious about winning back Germany's honor and saving Europe from itself.
"Goebels wrote five volumes of diaries. There's little record in them of Hitler laughing.
"Because they were socialists, this was the first time that the entertainment industry was put on a national footing. theater and other things were always local before the Nazis."
Luke: "What surprised you in your research?"
William: "That the German people continued to like the same humor, the same theater, and were completely impervious to the propaganda that the government was putting out. That the Nazis were so unsuccessful in everything they tried to do.
"I was surprised by how successful Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw were in Nazi Germany. Hitler felt that Shaw was important to the Nazi cause. Wilde of course was gay. Hitler embraced Wilde's plays as socially relevant and promoted them well into the war years. Hitler promoted Shaw well after Shaw denounced Hitler in 1941. All of Shaw's plays were translated by Siegfried Trebitsch, who was a Jew. Trebitsch was collecting royalties on all these Nazi productions (paid through Switzerland).
"Erich Kastner, a Jew, gets asylum in Switzerland but Goebbels calls him out of asylum circa 1944 to work on the screenplay of Kolberg of a huge military movie about the Prussians versus the Russians. They brought 160,000 troops back from the Eastern front to appear in uniform in this movie.
"Hitler would set up five or six cabinet ministries to compete with each other to protect his own position. They all vied for his favor. The result was terribly inefficient."
Luke: "Did the Nazis watch Charlie Chaplin, particularly The Great Dictator."
William: "They knew about Chaplin. They considered him to be a communist."
Luke: "Was there a racial purity element in Nazi comedy?"
William: "Oh yes, in the subject matter [and among those who put on productions]. You had to get a license from the propaganda ministry before any of your plays could be performed. Anyone who worked in the theater, or anywhere, had to fill out a racial purity affidavit."
Luke: "Was there great humor that came out of the Third Reich? Stuff that forever changed the course of comedy?"
William: "No. There's little poetry. There's no music or painting. There are some great movies and fabulous Shakespeare productions."
Luke: "What were the names of the great movies made under the Third Reich?"
William: "Der Mustergatte (1937, based on an American play by Avery Hopwood titled "The Ideal Husband), Pygmalion (1935, based on the play by George Bernard Shaw), Eine Frau ohne Bedeutung (1936, based on the play "An Ideal Husband" by Oscar Wilde)1936), Tanz auf dem Vulkan ("Dancing on the Volcano"1938, a fabulous star turn for Gründgens about a song and dance man in the French Revolution), Grosse Freiheint No. 7 (Big Freedom No. 7,1934), Münchhausen (1943), Wasser für Canitoga ("Water for Canitoga,"1937), Savoy Hotel 217 (1936), Titanic (1943, yes, the Titanic that hit an iceberg in 1912; not a great movie, but interesting), Die vier Gesellen ("The Four Associates,1938, with Ingrid Bergman in her only Third Reich appearance), Kleider machen Leute ("Clothes Make the Man," 1940) and several others."
William: "...The Nazis called everyone they didn't like a 'cultural Bolshevik.'
"The Nazis were the revolt of the little man. They were bourgeois petty murderers who got hold of the country. Imagine Jimmy Hoffa or Al Sharpton getting a hold of a country. There probably wouldn't be any great poetry to come out of that.
"If you wanted to be funny [under the Nazis], you had to be officially funny."
Luke: "Are the Germans considered funny?"
William: "No. Not among English-speaking people. What led me to write these books is my experience of a bunch of Germans laughing hysterically at a play while I was in college. If you watch television in Germany today, there's very funny stuff going on.
"I'm fascinated by your background. My father was also a minister (Disciples of Christ). We knew about the Seventh Day Adventists. My dad used to say, 'They're great people. They've just got this thing about going to church on Saturday.' We never did figure that out. You guys are very similar to us. I was baptized by immersion. I don't have any pictures of it the way you do. We were always told that Seventh-Day Adventists were real Bible-believing Christians."
Luke: "Are you still a Bible-believing Christian?"
William: "Pretty much. I'm a Methodist now."
Luke: "There aren't many religious people in drama."
William: "No, they're not. I was at a conference in Los Angeles a month ago and there was a woman from Brigham Young University who said that the sleeper hit Napoleon Dynamite was a Brigham Young University student film expanded into a studio film.
"Neil LaBute is a Mormon and a very good playwright."
Luke: "He's an ex-Mormon. Are there other practicing Christians [in theater]?"
William: "Yes, but we're in a minority."
William: "I am completely out of the mainstream [of theater professors]. You wouldn't believe how often I've been whistled or hooted off the platform when I give talks at conferences. The feminists sit there and look at their shoes and shake their heads."
Luke: "How often has that happened?"
William: "Every time I get up and talk. They just can't believe what they're hearing. They thought they had rooted guys like me out of the profession."
Luke: "It's a feminized profession."
William: "Yeah. You go to these conferences and men are in a distinct minority."
Luke: "They boo? They hiss?"
William: "Yeah. Groan."
Luke: "Do you give up if it gets too loud?"
William: "Oh no. They're polite during the thing. But you can tell when you look at people as they stare at their shoes or groan or talk to each other.
"One of the guys I gave a talk with at Chicago was Henry Bial (University of Kansas), who's an Orthodox Jew. I was delighted to be on the panel with him. His talk was predicated on the way the old rabbis taught and spoke and did their research. We're talking about putting our papers in a book on theater, how we should be more rabbinical in our approach."
Luke: "How do you understand 'rabbinical'?"
William: "Thorough. Skeptical though there are certain core beliefs -- that God exists, that God has a plan for our lives, that God loves us. If you're a Jew, He devised this diet for us. If you're a Christian, He's got this plan for you, though we borrowed that from the Jews.
"We're [conservative theists] all in this together. We are up against a formidable enemy."
Luke: "Theater is the home of the transgressive."
Luke: "The f-word and nudity etc were all the rage in theater."
William: "We started that because we didn't have anywhere to go after television. Theater was shunted aside [as a mass medium entertainment] and got more elitist to the point where we're all feminized, we're all gay... The AIDS plays are the valorization of the victim. If you're not a victim in today's academic world, you really don't count. All the disease plays -- Whipped, Marvin's Room, Shadow Box. It's tough dealing with students about this because they think of it as real theater. No, that's not real theater. Real theater doesn't deal with disease plays. It deals with action and conflict. When you're talking about disease plays, you're talking melodrama, superficial, two-sided thing."
Luke: "It must be discouraging."
William: "It is but that's one of the reasons I'm a Christian.
"There's lots of successful theater [today] but it's retrograde. It's Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables. Phantom is the most successful entertainment property in the history of the world. There's hope in it. Les Miserables is a story of Christian renewal and faith.
"You try to talk about and get it published and you're barking up the wrong tree.
"David Mamet is on to something. He's an iconoclast. He wrote an interesting play called Oleanna.
"Harold Pinter is an abomination.
"Dissenting voices that say there is a God, He loves you, he has a plan for your life, that is so retrograde, so primitive. Ted Turner says Christianity is for losers."
Luke: "What's the last play that meant something and influenced people?"
Henry Bial replies to my inquiry: