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Rudolph Herzog on German Humor Under Hitler

Rudolph Herzog:

Rudolph Herzog: "I'm not the world's best joke teller."

Have you heard the one about Hitler and Göring standing on top of the Berlin radio tower? Hitler says he wants to do something to put a smile on the Berliners' faces. Göring says, "Why don't you jump?"

The woman who first told that joke, in 1943, soon lost her head. She was executed by guillotine. Nazis, apparently, don't have a sense of humor. The fact that the woman's husband was a good German soldier who died in battle only made her crime worse.

Tales like these, and jokes like that, are the central preoccupation of filmmaker Rudolph Herzog's new book, Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler's Germany. Which asks, in essence: Hitler ... LOL?

"I was not doing this flippantly," Herzog explains by phone from his home in Berlin one recent evening, as he prepares to visit Los Angeles to discuss the book. His interest in the minds of the people of the era was piqued when a great-aunt, who was "a bit of a messy," died and left behind a house full of stuff, including typed-up anti-Nazi jokes from the 1940s.

"Did she write this?" he wondered. "If not, who did? What was the motive?

"When you joke, you sort of let down your guard," he says now. "It becomes apparent what you're thinking about. In that sense it's very revealing."

Herzog's grandparents' generation, for instance, claimed they didn't know about the concentration camps. But jokes about the camps were widespread. So people did know.

Political humor thrives under dictatorships, and the anti-Nazi jokes, it turns out, were a mass phenomenon. At the beginning of the war, jokes reflected the vanity of the leadership. The top Nazi brass resembled the "superior" Aryan "master race" not a whit. Joseph Goebbels was skinny. Hermann Göring was fat. Hitler wasn't blond.

People told jokes about how Göring had his medals remolded in rubber so he could wear them in the bath. A critique? Sure, of sorts.

Herzog, ever careful, lets nothing slide. "The fact that he was a mass murderer didn't factor into it. Göring was actually revered and loved by many, many people in Germany. You could argue that these kinds of jokes are actually quite harmless."

Equally counterintuitive: In allowing the populace to vent their frustration, the jokes may have actually supported the regime. "We have to see an inconvenient truth here. These jokes did not cause an uprising," Herzog says. "The Germans fought to the last bullet. The Soviets had to fight house by house to liberate Berlin."

Yes, telling an anti-Hitler joke could get you killed, but not in the way you'd think. Take the one about the dying soldier. He asks to be shown the people he is dying for. Someone brings out a photograph of Hitler and one of Goebbels, places one on the soldier's right, the other on his left. Herzog delivers the punch line: "The soldier looks at them and says, 'Now I'm dying like Jesus Christ — in between two criminals.' "

The joke once was told by an ordinary, non-blacklisted person. He was let off with a small fine. But it also was told in a village by a priest in 1943. "The Nazis didn't like Catholic priests. A lot of them ended up in Dachau. This priest had been on record for being outspoken against the Nazis," Herzog says. "He was executed for the same joke."

As the war progressed, the jokes turned bleak. Here's one: Göring, Goebbels and Hitler are out at sea in a boat. There is a storm. The boat sinks. Who is saved? Germany.

"It's wishing death to the leadership," Herzog says. "It's telling that people would wish such a thing. But if you read closely, it's the force of the storm or nature that kills them. Not a revolution."

In the end, Herzog was disillusioned about how subversive political humor could be. Immediately after the war, German citizens came out of the woodwork to publish collections of anti-Hitler "whispered jokes."

"They wanted to show they were against Hitler all along," Herzog says. "Only a few of these people were punished. It was a bit of a fig leaf. Like, 'Look, I collected this dangerous stuff.' It sort of falls apart. It's problematic." More people, he notes, were punished for listening to the BBC.

As to whether it's OK to laugh at atrocities, "It depends on who's laughing and for what reason," he says. Humor can be helpful after traumatic events. "To a certain point, it's a way of dealing with the horrors."

To a certain extent, you have to laugh at horrors. That was the core of Jewish humor. Theirs was gallows satire, a mustering of courage in the face of what seemed a hopeless situation.

Personally, Herzog favors the black wit of the Brits. Germans aren't exactly known for their sense of humor. They've only started joking about Nazis again in recent years. He says: "What do they say, the shortest books are English cooking and 500 years of German humor?"

Asked if there is a quintessentially German sense of humor, Herzog turns to the word schadenfreude: taking delight in the suffering or misery of others. The word does not exist in any other language, and it's been argued that it is uniquely German.

Herzog — who has not laughed once during the entire interview — talks about his impending visit to Los Angeles, where he'll be staying at the Hollywood Hills home of his father, filmmaker Werner Herzog. On May 12, he'll be interviewed at a comedy show at Largo on La Cienega.

Will he tell his Hitler jokes onstage? He's definitely got a lot of them. "Oh," he demurs. "I'm not the world's best joke teller."