The Sound of Young America: Writer and Filmmaker Rudolph Herzog

Episode 38

10th June 2011

Writer and filmmaker Rudolph Herzog explores the jokes employed by the oppressed and the oppressors of Germany’s Third Reich in his new book, Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany.

Episode notes

Rudolph Herzog is a filmmaker and writer who takes his audience on paths far from our everyday experience. He’s directed the reality crime series “The Heist” about criminal masterminds and a film about a lost Arctic explorer.

Herzog’s newest project originated as a documentary film and evolved into the written form. Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany is a look at how Germans, both oppressed and oppressors, used comedy to deal with the reality of living under The Third Reich.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest on the program is the filmmaker and author Rudolph Herzog. His new book is called Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany. It’s an exploration of humor in Germany before, during, and immediately after the Nazi years; including both the humor of the Nazis, of their subjects, and of their targets.

Rudolph, welcome to The Sound of Young America, it’s great to have you here.

RUDOLPH HERZOG: Hi, thanks for having me.

Click here for a full transcript of this interview, or click here to stream or download the audio.

JESSE THORN: What did you know about humor in Germany before you started to investigate the subject? Before you made it a target of your scholarship?

RUDOLPH HERZOG: Years ago, my great aunt, who was a bit of a messy – – she started collecting stuff in the war because things were rationed, and she never stopped. In the end her house was full of mess. Basically, when she was elderly and couldn’t live alone anymore and moved away, my uncle cleared up a house and he found all sorts of weird things in the mess, like a jam jar dated 1940, unopened. He also found two or three sheets of paper with printed up jokes dated 1939 or 1940. They were anti-Nazi jokes, some stuff about the American weapons; the Nazi propaganda was into this end of the war, that there was some sort of miraculous weapon that could turn the war. There were, of course, the V1 and V2 rockets, but there was also V3 according to this, which is a submarine with a rubber coating which could erase England by going around, and there was also a 500 man tank. There was only one man inside, 499 pushing. Then there was the V-Thousand, which is a white rag which you wave when the Red Army approaches.

This kind of stuff, I started really wondering – – did she write this? Was she some sort of secret resistance fighter or something? I kind of forgot about it, and later on I made a film about the subject because it popped up in a conversation with a broadcaster and then the book evolved out of that project.

JESSE THORN: You grew up in Berlin, what do you think Germans know about this subject? There were books of jokes published after the war, how do Germans who came up after this era think of the humor of that time?

RUDOLPH HERZOG: First of all, Germans of a certain generation would have known about this. As you said, the first books that came out after the war were collections of anti-Nazi jokes, so these were very widespread jokes indeed; a lot of people told them. My grandparents generation all knew about this, but I would say that people of my generation wouldn’t really know about it.

JESSE THORN: What was humor like in Germany during the Weimar years before the Nazi’s took control.

RUDOLPH HERZOG: It was characterized by a lot of Jewish comedians; it was the hey day of Jewish comedy, and there was some very good performers, like Kurt Gerron or Otto Wiborg, who were basically most of them in Berlin. Of course, that all disappeared in the course of the coming of the Third Reich. They were exiled, some of them were killed in the camps.

After that, you did have very few comedians who were outspoken against the Nazi’s, but of course it had to be between the lines; for instance, there was Werner Finck, who was a Berlin comedian. One of the things he did in his act in 1934, so after the Germans came to power, was his sidekick would come up on the stage with a picture, but with a back to the audience, and people sort of guessed that it was Hitler on the picture, and he’d stumble and then Finck would say, “Oh, don’t topple him, don’t topple him!” and people would roar with laughter. Of course sometimes they lost patience with him and they put him in a camp in 1935. Only through lucky wheeling and dealing he actually managed to get out again.

JESSE THORN: In the United States the comedy of the 1920s and 30s was in large part informed by people who had come out of Vaudeville, who had come out of touring theater. Those people were often doing ethnic humor; the Marx Brothers are doing broad ethnic caricatures that they’ve taken a little bit of the ethnicity out of as it translated to film, but they’re doing Italian guy, Jewish guy, etc. What were the themes of this humor that was being performed in cabarets and so on in the 20s, and how were those things changed when the political climate started to change?

RUDOLPH HERZOG: It was mostly light comedy, and of course America’s a country of immigrants, so you do get these various flavors. When I say the Jews in Germany, I of course mean Jewish Germans; they were totally assimilated, many of them had fought in World War I, so there’s not the kind of differentiation you would see. Humor became politicized after the Nazis came to power, not by the performers, but by the populace. They looked at their leadership and there were a couple of fault lines that were immediately clear. For instance, these people didn’t look like Aryans at all, the leadership. There were lots of jokes about the real Aryan should be blonde like Hitler and as thins as Goering, who was really fat, and as handsome and tall as Goebbels and these kinds of things.

In the beginning people liked pointing out things they were uncomfortable with, like the Hitler salute. This was something that was introduced and it’s rather ridiculous, and you had to do it if you went into a public building, and people just didn’t feel comfortable with it and they made lots of jokes about that, like Hitler goes to visit a lunatic asylum, and the lunatics line up and they do the salute, and he walks past the line, and all of a sudden there’s one man at the end of the line who’s not saluting, and he says, “What are you doing there, you’re not saluting, are you crazy?” And he says, “No, I’m the orderly, I’m not a mad man.” People just weren’t really comfortable with that. These weren’t really hurtful jokes, those came later.

JESSE THORN: I want to get to later soon, but tell me a little bit about how the changes in first attitudes, then policies towards Jews changed the world of professional entertainers and comedians during the 1930s.

RUDOLPH HERZOG: One of the absurdities was that, of course, Jews almost immediately a lot of them went into exile, and many of them were forced into exile.

JESSE THORN: There’s a great joke about Jews going into exile in Africa that you write in the book.

RUDOLPH HERZOG: Oh yes, this is one of my favorites, I hope I can tell it well. Levi and Herschel are both Jewish in the jungle, in the Congo, and they’re both wearing these tropical helmets, they’re holding guns. So they bump into each other, they haven’t seen each other for a long time, and they say, “My goodness, Herschel, it’s incredible to see you, what have you been up to?” He says, “Well, I’ve been hunting Tigers in India, now I’m going after crocodiles here. What about you?” He says, “I had a snake farm in Sudan, now I’m going after elephants.” He says, “Well, that’s interesting, but what happened to our friend Simon?” “He became a real adventurer,” says the other, “He stayed in Berlin.”

It’s funny, but also sad.

JESSE THORN: It’s horrible. They say all you can do is laugh.

RUDOLPH HERZOG: I think so, that’s how I interpret much of Jewish humor is that it’s just a way to kind of deal with these horrendous things that were happening, these unfathomably awful things.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest on the show is filmmaker and writer, Rudolph Herzog. His new book is called Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany.

What did you expect to find in the humor of the late 1930s and early 1940s among the non-Jewish German population, and how did what you find compare to what you expected.

RUDOLPH HERZOG: I expected to find something that was subversive, and I think that a lot of these jokes appeared to be subversive, but they really didn’t subvert anyone. For instance, Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels are out on sea and there’s a big storm and their boat sinks: who’s saved? Answer is Germany. These kind of things. The city where I’m from, Berlin, the Red Army would basically go from one house to the next, they would fight house by house, yet in these houses were the people who were telling these jokes; it was a mass phenomenon. It just shows you that it didn’t subvert people in the way that it would actually take fear away from to go out and actually try to kill Hitler or whatever.

JESSE THORN: It seems like there was almost an assumption that if there is humor, that humor is subversive, but you write in the book that especially before things turned dark, but even after they turned dark, it was a humor of fondness, to the extent that any of the humor had a point, it was jokes about dehumanizing the people who were being turned into the enemy.

RUDOLPH HERZOG: Yes, of course there were lots of anti-Semitic jokes, these things existed. The Nazis even went so far as to make an anti-Semitic comedy in 1939, Robert und Bertram. The only anti-Semitic comedy to come out of the Third Reich. Basically a story set in the 19th century, two young hobos try to save a young girl, one of them is in love with her, and she’s in the fangs of this Jew. We basically go through all of the nasty anti-Semitic cliches you could imagine in this film, and it’s served up in a way that is kind of like comedy, you don’t really expect it. It’s a very diabolical way of using humor, because people don’t expect it and it’s funneled into their head, the poison. It’s probably no coincidence that it came out the same year as the other anti-Semitic films like The Eternal Jew, and so on. It sort of helped to pave the way for the final solution, so that the people just didn’t care about the Jews anymore because of what they had seen.

JESSE THORN: One of the, as you described it, fictions, of the post-World War II era of Germany was that ordinary citizens didn’t know what was going on in the concentration camps. Your research about humor has given a lie to that assertion.

RUDOLPH HERZOG: As I said, these jokes were very widespread, and the camps come up in the jokes. For instance, there’s one where two men meet in the street and one says to the other, “Oh my goodness, I’m so happy to see you, I thought you were in a camp!” He says, “Well, I’m out.” The other man says, “How was it?” The other man says, “It was wonderful, we had coffee in the morning, they served us eggs, we did some sport, there was an elaborate lunch, and then in the evening we watched movies.” The man says, “My goodness, that’s incredible. The other day I met Meyer and he told me a completely different story.” The other man says, “Yeah, but he’s been taken back in again, hasn’t he?”

It’s a sinister joke, because in a way you see that not only did people know that the camps existed, but it’s quite clear from the joke that the man had been worked into submission, and that people were being tortured there and couldn’t get out anymore. There were many of these jokes and they were widespread. The generation of my grandparents claim that they didn’t know about this, and it’s quite obviously not true.

JESSE THORN: Did you talk to anyone who was in camps about the humor that was going on there, in that absolute darkest of places?

RUDOLPH HERZOG: Yes, I spoke to Coco Schumann who was in the notorious Auschwitz band, so he was forced to play while people were sent to the gas chamber. He confirmed what other sources confirmed, that there was a lot of humor in the camps; that’s the way a lot of Jews tried to cope with the situation. There’s a story about a fairly well known German actor whose father died in Auschwitz, and someone who was there claimed that when he entered the gas chamber he said, “After you, Mr. Levi.” That’s almost the darkest joke you could possibly make in that situation, but on the other hand, what are you supposed to say? How are you supposed to respond to something like that? It’s quite resonant. Some of the Jewish humor, of course, is very dark. Like, two men are supposed to be executed, and they’re supposed to be shot, and then the executioner comes up to them and says, you’re actually going to be hung after all. One man nudges the other and says, hey, look, they don’t even have bullets anymore.

It’s a dark joke, in a way funny, but you kind of want to cry a the same time. What’s good about it is that, on the one hand, there’s no hope for these two protagonists, because they’ll die. But there’s hope for the Jewish people, because Hitler’s mad plan isn’t working out, and he doesn’t have any bullets anymore. This way of making hope in spite of all these horrors is quite amazing.

JESSE THORN: What do you see as the essential roles of the humor that you learned about during this time? What do you see those roles as having been?

RUDOLPH HERZOG: In the case of the humor of the Jews or the German Jews, I think it’s a way of coping with the horrors. In the case of the jokes I came across that the gentiles were telling, I think it’s, to a large extent, a way of venting frustrations about what was happening. In the beginning it was more about exposing fault lines, or you were a little bit angry that some brown shirts took your job away and stuff like that, and jokes were made about that. But when the war turned sour, people were angry and worried about that. It was a way of venting these frustrations, and in a way, you could argue, that it stabilized the regime. Once you’ve shrugged it off with a joke, you didn’t have to pick up a gun and go after Hitler.

JESSE THORN: It feels like especially those lighthearted jokes about the leadership are a way of disengaging; of engaging small things so that you don’t have to engage the big things.

RUDOLPH HERZOG: There are very few jokes, if any, about Hindler; I think that’s quite interesting, because they feared him. He was part of all the stuff they didn’t really want to know about. Knowing has to do with wanting to know. If you don’t want to know something, you’ll never know it. I think that’s quite important, because the information about the holocaust and what was happening was there. It could be accessed, at least to some extent. There are jokes that prove this.

In Amsterdam there was a Jewish joke going around about the gas. There was Asscher and Cohen, the heads of the Jewish Council, and they were seen as collaborators with the Germans, so there was a joke about the Germans coming to them and saying, the Amsterdam Jews are going to be sent to be gassed, and then they say, are you taking care of the gas or should we supply it? People knew about the gas. They could have known about it, but they didn’t want to know.

JESSE THORN: We’ve got more with Rudolph Herzog after the break, he’s the author of Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany. It’s The Sound of Young America, from and PRI, Public Radio International.

Welcome back to the sound of young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest is Rudolph Herzog, he’s a writer and filmmaker, and the author of Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this episode of faulty towers where John Cleese as Basil Faulty is an innkeeper. The premise of this program is that he’s a horrible innkeeper, but he has guests who are German, and it’s essentially a farce, where the premise is that he is obsessed with not bringing up World War II, and of course, makes everything horrible at every turn. While that is obviously a British television program, it’s about something that’s really significant in the aftermath of World War II, which is that – – what it’s about is, how can you possibly move on after something that is as horrible as that.

RUDOLPH HERZOG: I have actually seen that, it’s very funny. After the war, in the 50s, people tried to get on with their lives, and they tried to ignore what had happened. That was the stance, and historians of the 1950s, the German ones, their take on it was that Hitler was like a demon, and that he’d hypnotized the Germans to do all these things using propaganda and all these very modern tools. Of course, if you look at the jokes and, for instance, Goebbels, who was the minister for propaganda, people were saying his broadcasts are like Klopfer’s fairy tales, these kinds of jokes, you see that people did see through the propaganda, and that they weren’t hypnotized at all. Of course, it’s very practical to call yourself someone who was hypnotized, because the person who’s hypnotized is not really responsible for what he does; it’s the hypnotist. That’s what you really want, but, of course, that’s a way of bending truth and if you look at the humor you see that that’s not the case.

JESSE THORN: You’ve spent now more than five years with this subject. How has immersing yourself in something so difficult for so long changed you?

RUDOLPH HERZOG: It was awful. I hated it in many ways. It’s like, we have to look into the abyss. You can’t blink. Of course it sounds interesting in the humor and stuff, and it is, but you also have to look the horrors in the face of what happened. They’re worse than anything you could ever imagine, it’s just horrific. I think I’ve done my part in a way, and I’m happy it’s out, the book. I’m also happy that I can put it on a shelf and turn to other things.

JESSE THORN: Maybe a documentary about circus acts or something. You were a professional magician, so maybe something about magic?

RUDOLPH HERZOG: Yes, I was actually a professional magician for a couple of years, yeah.

JESSE THORN: A year or two ago, I interviewed the British satirist Chris Morris about his film Four Lions, which was a farce about an English terror cell operating in England; an English Muslim terror cell. It came from his years of researching this subject out of his own personal interest, and reading about clownish, doofy behavior on the part of terrorists, and feeling like he wanted to portray them to satirize them. I go the most vehement letter I’ve ever got, I give out my e-mail address at the end of the show, I got the most vehement letter I’ve ever gotten from a guy who simply felt two things: that this was not necessarily a suitable subject for a comedic film, and also that this film was described by, I think, one of the programmers of Sundance on the show as having been particularly powerful because it humanized its subjects. That was a positive thing in that Sundance guy’s opinion, and a positive thing in Chris Morris’ opinion, but the guy who wrote me said that nothing can be good that humanizes a monster, like a terrorist.

I wonder how your perspective on humor about something horrible, both Hitler and the Third Reich specifically, and more generally about the most horrible things there are and the most horrible people there are, how that’s been informed by having spent these years doing this research.

RUDOLPH HERZOG: Of course you could reverse the argument and say that the statue, the way they wanted to be portrayed, his not bound by humanizing someone, so you could actually reverse that and turn the argument around, so then the morality wouldn’t be the question. The terrorists, yeah – – I think humor is a way of dealing with trauma to some extent. You see countless examples of that, from Simplicius Simplicissimus, which was a manuscript, the first German novel that came out after The Thirty Year War, where basically whole populations were wiped out. In this war, Southern Germany was depopulated, and the first thing that comes out afterwards was about a young man who stumbles through the war, and he’s a fool and all sorts of weird and funny things happen. It’s a way of dealing with these things. You see that, for instance, in Forrest Gump, a very similar figure, the film goes through all the American trauma of AIDS, the Vietnam War, the 60s uprising, and so on, but seen through the eyes of a fool. I don’t know. It’s a coping mechanism, I think, and sometimes, if something is too close to the events, it just does seem inappropriate to people. That’s why I’m getting these kind of responses.

For example, years ago, after September 11th, I used to be the assistant of Philippe Petit, who’s a tightrope walker, and he did the walk between the World Trade Center. I went to ground zero with him and talked with him on camera about what he had done and I made a little film about it and I wanted to expand on that, and it was impossible to raise money for it because people just couldn’t see why one would make such a film. At such a point in time. Many many years later Man on Wire came out on the same subject and it was a huge success, but the timing was much better. People saw it was a poetic way of dealing with a trauma that just wasn’t possible in the months afterwards; it was a miscalculation on my part.

JESSE THORN: People require this kind of distance, whether it’s the distance of time, the distance of literal, physical distance, whatever that distance is, they need something.

RUDOLPH HERZOG: Yes, if you look at The Great Dictator, which incidentally, it came out in 1940. It didn’t come to Germany, there was one copy that was taken out by The Reich Chancellery, so Hitler may have seen it, but apart from that, of course, no one saw it. There were rumors about it, but no one saw it. After the war, it took until the 50s, I believe even the late 50s, until it came out in Germany. I read a review about the film, a German review, and the review said, the film is fantastic, Chaplin’s a genius, but we’re not ready for this. That’s quite resonant.

JESSE THORN: Rudolph, thank you so much for taking this time to be on The Sound of Young America.

RUDOLPH HERZOG: It’s a great pleasure.

JESSE THORN: Rudolph Herzog’s new books is called Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany.

Our transcripts are provided by Sean Sampson. If you’re interested in contacting him for transcription work, email him here.

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