“What better way to insult Hitler than having him played by a Polynesian Jew,” Waititi himself tweeted.
When it comes to the Holocaust and humor, many artists, writers and actors feel they have to tread a thin line: When does satire shine a light on injustices, and when does it become sacrilegious and downright hurtful?
Yet there seems to be a general consensus: Making fun of the slaughtering and suffering of Jews is never OK. But making fun of Nazis? That, my friends, has been a favorite pastime for nationals of so many Allied countries — including, of course, Jews.
For decades, Jews have played Nazis on the small and silver screens, including — startlingly, amazingly — during the height of the Holocaust.
As I started exploring these roles of Jews portraying Nazis, I couldn’t help but get a little verklempt. Many of the earliest portrayals of Nazis were by immigrants and refugees — some even were German Jewish actors who left Germany when Hitler first rose to power — as well as the children of immigrants from countries whose Jews were brutally slaughtered.
Here they were on screen, these vital, successful Jewish actors, often mocking those who wanted their demise. What better revenge against the Nazis is there? This isn’t just that Jews are thriving, creative and successful — they’ve also taken their deepest traumas and turned them into art.
Here’s a look at some of the most famous times Jews played Nazis.
The Three Stooges in “You Nazty Spy!” (1940)
Moe Howard, the leader of the Three Stooges (they were Jewish) was the first American to satirize Adolf Hitler in film, all the way back in 1940. Howard plays the leader of a fictional country called Moronica in a portrayal that is quite poignant — and pretty hilarious, too.
His real-life brother Curly (real name Jerry) plays Field Marshal Gallstone, mocking both Hermann Goering and Mussolini, while Larry plays Minister of Propaganda Pebble, making fun of Joseph Goebbels.
The comedy also embraced the Stooges’ Ashkenazi Jewish background by sprinkling in some Hebrew and Yiddish to further spite the Nazis.
Jack Benny in “To Be or Not To Be” (1942)
In this comedy, the beloved comic plays a Polish actor in Nazi-occupied Poland who plays a Nazi in his theater’s production. (So meta!) Jack Benny was born Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago in 1894, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He went on to become one of the most revered comedians of his time.
Here is a Jew at the height of Hitler’s power starring in a movie — directed by a German Jew, Ernst Lubitsch — that outright mocks the German leader.
The film was not well received. In 1942, the Nazi threat was palpable in the US, and Americans did not understand the need to mock such serious danger. (We did not know the full horror of the Holocaust at that point.)
According to Benny’s 1991 unfinished autobiography, his father was so incensed at seeing his son in a Nazi uniform that he left the theater early into the screening. But Benny insisted that his father watch the movie until the end, and his dad ended up liking it so much that he watched it over 40 times.
Conrad Veidt in “Casablanca” (1942)
The German actor was a Lutheran, but here’s the thing: Veidt filled out his race as “Jewish” in all formal paperwork required by the ruling Nazi Party. Why? The star of the renowned 1920 silent film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” married Ilona Prager, a Hungarian Jew, in 1933. It was his third and last marriage.
Despite being successful in his home country, Veidt refused to abandon his wife or adopt Nazi ideology. So he left Germany, first for England and then for the United States, where he continued his acting career — often, ironically, by portraying Nazis.
In the iconic “Casablanca,” Veidt plays Maj. Heinrich Strasser, leading to the famous line, “Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects.”
The Academy Award winner for best picture also featured many other German Jews, including actors Peter Lorre and Curt Bois.
Ludwig Donath in “The Strange Death of Hitler” (1943)
Donath plays a Hitler impersonator who is kidnapped and forced to undergo plastic surgery in order to look more like the Fuehrer — to become a decoy for assassination attempts. Though the Jewish actor had played a handful of Nazis previously, he actually played the role of Hitler three times that same year — he was also the voice of Hitler in “Margin of Error” and “The Moon is Down.”
Luther Adler as Hitler in “The Magic” and “The Desert Fox” (1951)
That’s right, Luther Adler — brother of actress and acting coach Stella Adler — played Hitler in two separate movies in 1951. The son of Russian immigrants, Adler got his first acting role in the Yiddish theater at age 5 and went on to play Hitler. Talk about a range! Fascinatingly, he also played Hitler in an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
Otto Preminger in “Stalag 17” (1953)
Billy Wilder directed this critically acclaimed and commercially successful movie, which takes place in a German POW camp run by a Colonel von Scherbach. Preminger, the famed Austro-Hungarian Jewish director — whose work includes “Margin of Error” — appears as the colonel in one of his few acting roles.
Basically all the Nazis on “Hogan’s Heroes”
The satirical TV comedy helped make making fun of Nazis great again! The series, which takes place in a German POW camp, ran from 1965 to 1971 and spanned 168 episodes. Jewish actors hilariously play the two incompetent Nazi soldiers who run the camp.
Werner Klemperer won two Emmy Awards for his role as the serious Col. Wilhelm Klink. Klemperer had already played Nazis plenty of times, most notably Adolph Eichmann in “Operation Eichmann” (1951) and Nazi prosecutor Emil Hanh in “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961). But it was his role as the commander of the fictional Stalag 13 for which he will be remembered. Klemperer’s father was Jewish, though he converted to Catholicism for a time before returning to Judaism.
Under Klink served Sergeant Schultz, whose catchphrase was “I see nothing!” Schultz was played by John Banner, an Austria-born Jew who lost much of his family to the Holocaust.
They served under General Burkhalter and Maj. Wolfgang Hochstetter. Burkhalter was played by Leon Askin, born Leon Ashkenazy in Austria, who immigrated to the US in 1940 and fought in the air force during the war. Hochstetter was played by Howard Caine, who was born Howard Cohen in Nashville, Tennessee.
One of the camp’s prisoners, the French corporal LeBeau, was played by Jewish actor Robert Clary, who himself was a prisoner at Buchenwald and survived thanks to his singing and entertainment skills. Clary was the only member of his family to survive the war.
Anton Diffring in, well, everything
Diffring’s German origins — as well as his light hair and piercing blue eyes — got him cast as a Nazi again and again through his decades-long career. He was actually born Anton Pollack, the son of a German-Jewish store owner who managed to avoid the horrors of the war.
Diffring went from playing unnamed and uncredited German soldiers in 1950 to playing some notorious Nazi leaders in the likes of “Where Eagles Dare” (1968) and SS officer Reinhard Heydrich in “Operating Daybreak” (1975). He played Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, in the 1983 miniseries “The Winds of War.” His last Nazi role was in a “Doctor Who” in a three-episode serial called “The Silver Nemesis” in 1988.
Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove” (1964)
Sellers played three characters in the iconic Stanley Kubrick film, including the eponymous Dr. Strangelove, a former Nazi and nuclear warhead expert. The British actor also played Hitler in the British comedy “Soft Beds, Hard Battles” — one of seven roles he played in that film.
His Jewish identity was somewhat fraught. Sellers’ mother was Jewish and his father was Protestant, but he grew up attending Catholic school. That’s enough to make anyone’s relationship to their Judaism rather complicated.
Mel Brooks in “To Be or Not to Be” (1983)
That’s right! Brooks reprised a version of the Benny role from 1942, even rapping as Hitler in the remake. The comedian, of course, has a legacy of mocking Hitler, notably in this sketch of Hitler ice skating from “History of the World: Part I” and in “The Producers.”
Steven Berkoff in “War and Remembrance” (1988-89)
Berkoff, a British Jewish actor, played Hitler in a miniseries based on the novel by Jewish writer Herman Wouk.
Joel Grey in “The Empty Mirror” (1997)
Grey plays Joseph Goebbels in this dark, fantastical delve into the mind of Hitler. The Jewish actor is also known for playing the master of ceremonies in the 1972 film adaptation of “Cabaret,” possibly his first Nazi role as his character (spoiler alert!) goes from mocking Nazis to espousing some of their ideology.
Harvey Keitel in “The Grey Zone” (2001)
Keitel plays SS-Oberscharfuehrer Eric Muhsfeldt in this dark film about an insurrection among some of the Sonderkommandos (Jewish prisoners charged with disposing of bodies) at the crematoria in Auschwitz. The son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Romania, Keitel plays a cruel Nazi villain opposite Jewish prisoners played by Steve Buscemi, David Arquette and Natasha Lyonne.
It wasn’t the last time Keitel played a Nazi. In the 2009 film “Inglourious Basterds” by (honorary member of the tribe) Quentin Tarantino, Keitel voices an OSS commander, though he is not credited. Keitel, a big supporter of the film, also made sure to pass the script of “Inglourious Basterds” to the Anti-Defamation League for approval (according to Keitel, the ADL loved it). What a mensch.
Does The Times of Israel give you valuable insight into Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we come to work every day - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.