Understanding how a nation can embrace anti-Semitic tyranny is a complex problem. “Letters to Hitler”, out in May from Polity Books, helps explain the matter. Historian Henrik Eberle, co-author of “The Hitler Book,” has selected from thousands of letters written by Germans of all ages from 1925 to 1945 from a collection found in Moscow’s KGB Special Archive, where they were transported after the war.
Originally published in 2007 in a lengthier version by Verlagsgruppe Lübbe as “Letters to Hitler: A People Writes To Its Führer” these missives created a media sensation in Germany and even inspired a 4-CD audio book. The impression is of a people sadly brainwashed, such as the Karl Fessler family, who in the early 1930s sent a photo of their ten month old daughter Rita, “raising her little hand in the German salute… If she is shown a picture of Uncle Hitler she immediately salutes.”
Comedy, explained Aristotle, has a vague history, because at first no one took it seriously. We cannot know for certain if Aristotle was deadpanning, but his observation would amuse Saul Austerlitz. According to Austerlitz, American film comedy has not been taken seriously, either. In fact, the author quips, it is American film’s “bastard stepchild.” With his latest book “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy,” Austerlitz gives us a broad survey of the genre, hoping to spark debate.
There were few Jewish comedians in Aristotle’s day, but in American comedy, Austerlitz notes, Jews are “the only minority group overrepresented.” The title of his book is taken from a catch phrase by the gentile comic geniuses Laurel and Hardy, but on the cover of the book, it is Jewish comedians, The Marx Brothers, who are making a mess. For Austerlitz, the Marx Brothers are the embodiment of Jewish humor — “anarchic, absurdist, and ebullient” — existing in the face of a hostile or dismissive power structure.
The Hungarian poet Béla Balázs (1884–1949), born Herbert Bauer to a German Jewish family in Szeged, is best remembered for his libretto to Béla Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle and the scenario for Bartók’s ballet The Wooden Prince. Yet he was also a pioneering film theorist, as a compelling new publication from Berghahn Books, “Béla Balázs: Early Film Theory: ‘Visible Man’ and ‘The Spirit of Film’” reminds us.
In these key texts, the depth and perceptiveness of Balázs’s insights are due the range of his cultural interests; he was a close friend of the Hungarian Jewish philosopher György Lukács, born Löwinger György Bernát in Budapest, until the latter’s hardline Communism put Balázs off. Other artsy Budapest Jewish friends of his youth included Manó Kertész Kaminer, who as “Michael Curtiz” later directed “Casablanca.”
Michael Löwy’s insightful “Redemption and Utopia: Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe: A Study in Elective Affinity” (Stanford University Press) terms Balázs and his circle a “generation of dreamers and Utopians,” yet his razor-sharp focus on film action makes his observations percipient, like his analysis of Pola Negri’s death scene in the title role of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1918 film “Carmen”: “She strokes her murderer’s arm with a strangely tender mournfulness. This gesture tells us that she has long ceased to love him. But she understands only too well why he stabbed her.”