Before kids, you spend Friday evenings arguing immigration law in noisy coffee shops or snuggling in the back row at the movie theater. After kids, you look around on a Friday night and realize that you’re cheering for the Nazis.
Worse, one of the Nazis is your son. Thank you, Rodgers and Hammerstein.
In April, a Moscow university confined its foreign students to their dorm rooms on Adolf Hitler’s birthday for fear of skinheads behaving badly. A totalitarian, freedom-hating regime’s gotta do what a totalitarian, freedom-hating regime’s gotta do. But if we really want to stamp out Nazis, few that they are in America, shouldn’t we do something about the endless amateur productions of The Sound of Music that proliferate across the land?
I was subjected to one recently, courtesy of my children’s middle school. For reasons I’d rather not contemplate, the drama teacher thought my daughter an excellent nun and my son an outstanding Nazi.
As is usually the case, it could have been worse. My son, once cast as a cow in the church nativity play, could have been chosen a nun. The Sound of Music has a long, distinguished history of breaking gender barriers: In 1959, the entire children’s cast was a Tony Award nominee for Best Featured Actress, even though two of the kids were boys.
But this production followed the Cannonball Run II rule of gender segregation: boy, nun, boy, nun. Girls would be nuns; boys would be Nazis. Walzing Nazis. Apparently there is a dearth of young men willing to wear swastikas or tuxedos — they are equally abhorrent to 14-year-old boys — so all Nazis had to pull double duty as guests at the big party where Captain von Trapp dances with Maria.
This twist of casting led to fascinating announcements over the school’s public-address system, such as “All Nazis report for your waltz lessons.”
The kids had six weeks to prepare for the show, and while my daughter the nun had to learn seven songs and a Latin vocabulary that would impress a seminarian, my son the Nazi had to, well, waltz. And march. Although for middle schoolers, there’s not much difference in technique.
The Nazis didn’t have a lot of lines; my son just shouted (quite well, I must say) “Where is Captain von Trapp?” once or twice. The audience, mostly moms and dads with a smattering of bored siblings, cheered loudly when our beloved Nazis marched up and down the aisles. That’s my son there with the swastika; doesn’t he look handsome?
It was darkly amusing and faintly disturbing. We weren’t, of course, really applauding for Nazis, but for our awkwardly goose-stepping sons. In real life, there is nothing less funny than a Nazi … but there they are, the stuff of comedy. When Prince Harry donned a Nazi costume on Halloween three years ago, he wasn’t making a political statement, but a joke. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society is freshly outraged anytime someone calls someone else a Nazi, but these days, who doesn’t? Just ask Mike Godwin, the creator of Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” (This means that once someone plays the Nazi card, the reasoned debate is over.) And — thank you, Seinfeld — the Soup Nazi was great fun.
But then, my seven-year-old, who wasn’t in the play, but was enraptured by his brother’s performance, comes home with a box he decorated in art class. It was covered with crude drawings of flowers, stick figures and a Pokemon character or two. “And look!” he pointed at a peculiar black scribble. “What is it?” I asked.
“A Nazi!” he replied, excitedly.
It was his crude rendition of a swastika. Horrified, I explained that this was not something we draw, that it was a hateful symbol that we would not have in our home. Later, when the story broke, I told him about Rutka’s notebook, the recently unveiled diary of Rutka Laskier, called the “Polish Anne Frank.” Rutka was 14, the same age as my son the Nazi, when she died at Auschwitz.
These events — the play, the swastika, the diary — arrived in unnerving succession, and almost pushed me to add “Nazi” to the list of words that are not allowed in the house. But I came around.
When The Sound of Music debuted on Broadway in 1959, the horrific back-story that laps at the love story was less than a generation old. But, as they say, time wounds all heels. As the waters of history recede, so does a threatening Hitler. For the typical, Wii-obsessed middle schooler, what’s left on the shore is a dried-up, pathetic old joke with a preposterous moustache – a dangerous loon, yes, whose political progeny we will always beware…. but a joke, nonetheless.
Even the rank-and-file Nazis – for all their evil, power, and threat to civilization – have always been faintly ridiculous, with their exaggerated goose-stepping, comically bloused trousers and their Fuhrer screaming about Aryan supermen. They are both a good target and a fair simile; it is useful to mock one’s enemies. Nervous laughter gets us through horror movies, and caricature diminishes fear. Even the dimmest Jihadist knows that once something is reduced to a cultural punchline, it loses much of its power. This why the Mohammad cartoons mattered.
When my husband was younger and dumber, he dined at a chain restaurant where there was a wait. This was before vibrating beepers, and a hostess would take your name and then summon you with an irritatingly chirpy announcement that everyone could hear. Exasperated, he gave his last name as “Nazi,” assuming the hostess would catch the joke. She didn’t. Ten minutes later, the announcement was made: “We are pleased to welcome the Nazi party!” All conversation stopped.
It was shocking, and outrageous, but funny – just like the “Springtime for Hitler” song (“Don’t be stupid, be a smarty! Come and join the Nazi party!”) in The Producers, the1968 Mel Brooks movie that MGM at first declined to release because it was in “bad taste.” It was, of course, just like my husband’s joke, but if we do away with bad taste, there will be little left of Hollywood and next-to-nothing on TV.
Of course, there’s not much on TV, anyway, so for amusement, I read the police report in my small-town newspaper. The weekend of my kids’ play, amid the usual reports of fender benders and injured deer in roadways, there was this: “8:27 a.m. While walking behind (the school), a female found a swastika carved into a tree. Officer Patrick O’Brien found the swastika, photographed it and then removed it.”
And there it is: the life cycle of an American swastika: emergence, detection, eradication. Ignorance we will always have with us, but reason often prevails.