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Satirizing the Third Reich

Wed, 12/11/2019 - 12:28

I was uncomfortable watching the film “Jojo Rabbit.” I almost got up and left, but then stuck it out. Afterward, sorting my feelings, I asked myself and a friend who had seen it with me, is it really possible to satirize the Third Reich? Or is that a generational question from people who lived at the time? The story is seen through the eyes of a boy during the war. I was a boy at the same time.

A boy of the Midwest. Living in Omaha, Neb., I was as safe from the horror of Nazi Germany and the war as the German boy in the film was in danger from it. Those who went through that in Europe, and in England, could hardly comprehend my world, nor I theirs.

Nonetheless I write from a perspective that includes the war. One of my uncles was co-pilot of a glider plane soon after D-Day. As the family learned later, he went down behind German lines and with the rest of his field artillery was taken captive. In 1945, with the advancing Soviet front, prisoners of war in eastern Germany were marched west. My uncle escaped from that line with a number of others, and in groups of two and three they made their way out. My uncle and his companion walked and rode where they could to the Black Sea, where, seeing an American ship anchored, they swam out to it.

In grade school in Omaha I bought 25-cent coupons to fill a war bond book, to $18.75, redeemable in 10 years at $25. I smashed tin cans for collections of scrap metal. We had practice air raids. I knew what rations were. All of that would seem lightweight to anyone in the war in Europe and in the camps. But it was part of the war effort. We were all involved.

I have one memory that is distinctly my own. Riding home with my parents in the car one day in 1943 I read the marquee of a local theater near our house. “Hitler’s Children” was showing. I must have wondered as a child, who were Hitler’s children? At home, I asked my mother if I could see it. She said no, but I sneaked out anyway on a Saturday afternoon and walked to the theater.

I didn’t know what a propaganda film was. Nor did I appreciate the distinction between German and Nazi. From my child’s perspective the Germans were the enemy. Today, it’s also amazing to me that a 9-year-old boy unaccompanied by an adult could get into a theater showing that film.

It was a frightening movie. Karl and Anna meet and become friends when they are students in nearby schools, the boy part of the Hitler Youth. Then they are adults and the war is going. There is a scene in a clinic with women and nurses. I didn’t know what sterilization was, but what I saw and felt was danger for Anna.

Karl, now a young officer of the Gestapo, wants to protect Anna and proposes marriage, which she turns aside. Later in the story, Anna has been arrested and is tied to a post, ordered by Karl’s commanding officer to be whipped. Karl is there by command of the officer. While Anna is being whipped, Karl rushes forward to interrupt it. For that he is arrested.

Then there is a court scene, which the viewer sees, but it is also being broadcast by radio. Karl is on trial. Instead of renouncing his action to intercede on Anna’s behalf he denounces Hitler. He is shot on the spot. Anna rushes to him, and she is shot. The viewer hears the shots over the radio.

While I was walking home from the theater, passing a house with a metal fence around the yard, I picked up a strong stick by the sidewalk and held it against the railings of the fence as I walked so that it produced a kind of rat-a-tat sound, like the shots I had heard in the movie. I never told my mother I had seen it.

My paternal grandparents lived in Clear Lake, Iowa, where we summered as a family. I didn’t know it at the time, but in 1944 and 1945 German prisoners were housed in a camp 40 miles west of Clear Lake, at Algona. With a shortage of farm labor because of the war, some of the prisoners worked on the farms. As my Clear Lake friend Dick tells me now, a number of them worked nearby. He didn’t know that at the time either, but we assume our parents and grandparents did.

To this day, whenever I hear someone I don’t know in a crowd or social gathering speaking German, or English with a German accent, I am in an instant on guard. I adjust back in the same instant, but it is a reflex. 

We are conditioned by our history, including inherited and programmed prejudice, whether about Jews or about Germans. It is from that perspective that I wonder if the history of the Third Reich can be satirized. Or ought to be. Unless, perhaps, the caliber of writing is like that in Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” where the evil is obvious.

“Jojo Rabbit” includes a sweet story about the boy and a young Jewish woman the boy’s mother hides in their attic. There is that human dimension to the story, including the bravery of sheltering Jews. But the actions of the Nazis are handled lightly or unevenly, which is sometimes arresting but also set up for laughs. Are we meant to laugh? I heard one woman laugh once when I saw the film; otherwise, an audience that did not include young men or women remained silent.

Perhaps younger men and women seeing it might more readily laugh, distanced from my generational point of view. Or would say of course we can satirize the Third Reich. But then some younger men and women today embrace right-wing if not outright Nazi sentiment.

If the historical reality is lost or downplayed, especially in film and media, where are we? That is what I was feeling as I left the theater.

The Rev. Robert Stuart is pastor emeritus of the Amagansett Presbyterian Church. He lives in Springs. 



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