At the Jan. 3 AFI Awards, Mel Brooks interrupted his speech about the American Film Institute’s women directors program to praise Taika Waititi for Searchlight’s “Jojo Rabbit.” However, he joked, the filmmaker “did not ask my permission to use Hitler!”
It got a big laugh (as Brooks usually does) for the reference to his 1968 movie “The Producers” and the 2001 musical. Brooks may be synonymous with comedic Nazis, but he hardly invented the concept.
On Aug. 14, 1940, Variety hailed the Hitler-Mussolini satire “The Great Dictator” as “probably the motion picture industry’s greatest one-man show,” because Charlie Chaplin, wrote, directed, starred and totally financed the $2.2 million film himself. The reviewer wrote, “The preaching is strong, notably in the six-minute speech at the finish, but also in the comedy.”
Two years later, Ernst Lubitsch directed (from Edwin Justus Meyer’s script) “To Be or Not to Be,” a 1942 film about Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland. It was shockingly timely, and shockingly hilarious. (Brooks and Anne Bancroft starred in a 1983 remake.)
Aside from “The Producers,” the 1960s saw other comedies on the topic, such as Arte Johnson’s squinting, cigarette-smoking Nazi on “Laugh-In,” and CBS’s half-hour “Hogan’s Heroes.”
Variety described that sitcom as “a preposterous farce on the grim POW situation of World War II, made safe by the passage of a couple of decades.” The passage of time was crucial with most of these projects because at the start, nobody laughed at Nazis.
Even though self-righteous reformers like to portray showbiz people as La La Land elitists, people in the entertainment industry need to know what their audiences like or reject, so are very in touch with what’s going on. The awareness of Nazism is a perfect example.
On Nov. 12, 1930, before most of the world had heard of the man, Variety reported that Adolf Hitler had opened the National Socialistic People’s Theatre, with a program of seven Aryan-glorifying plays. By April 29, 1931,Variety said Hitler might enter film production. It made sense: He could reach a bigger audience with movies. Popular culture and the arts were key to furthering the Nazi agenda.
A year later, Variety reported that the Nazis had forced closure of the play “Waterloo Bridge” by disrupting a performance and threatening the management. The Robert Sherwood play centered on the romance between a soldier and prostitute, thus was considered an affront to Nazi standards. Variety said, “It’s only one of many headaches to show business in Germany recently by the National Socialist party, whose influence is growing daily.”
Within a year, the Nazis had banned jazz and any form of music created by Jews. While the persecution started with Jewish people, Variety reported that the Nazi party had begun targeting Catholics and theater guilds: they soon also targeted political dissidents, homosexuals, Romani people (identified then as gypsies) and creatives, among others. (Waititi’s movie doesn’t mention this aspect of the Nazis; while 6 million Jews were killed, another 5 million others who were deemed expendable were also eliminated.)
On June 19, 1934, a Variety banner story was headlined “Hitlerized Show Biz,” reporting that high-profile artists like Fritz Lang and Max Reinhardt were leaving the country and the “industry is a shell of its former self.”
“Jojo” won the audience favorite award at Toronto, and was given an ACE Eddie Award for its comedy editing. The film has been nominated for six Oscars, including best picture. With “Jojo,” writer-director Waititi is carrying on the tradition of Chaplin, Lubitsch and Brooks. And carrying on the showbiz tradition of warning people.