Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Strangest Comedy Team in Film History

By Ed Garea 

Before I begin, I’d like to provide some background: I was watching the wonderful miniseries The World at War on the Military Channel. The episode I was watching was concerned with German life during the war. During the course of the episode, German propaganda was discussed and it cut to a short segment featuring the “Nazi propaganda comics” Tran and Helle.

This completely blew my mind, so to speak. The Nazis had a comic duo? This was certainly news to me, and I knew I had to look into it.

Tran (Ludwig Schmitz) and Helle (Jupp Husserls) made a series of 14 shorts that ran along with Die Deutsche Wochenschau (The German Weekly Review) before the feature film. The shorts were two to three minutes long and concerned the doings of Tran (which translates as “dopey”), a fat, bald, dim-witted character who was always trying to circumvent the Nazi system for his own profit. His friend Helle (which translates as “brightness”) was always there as the foil who would ultimately show Tran the error of his ways.

In the clip from The World at War, Tran is listening to foreign broadcasts on his radio. Helle warns against listening to foreign broadcasts, mentioning that it’s against the law. Tran replies to the effect that it’s not illegal if he’s not caught, to which Helle responds that it doesn’t matter, “good Germans don’t do it.” Tran then hears on the radio that someone caught listening to foreign radio broadcasts has just been sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison, and hurriedly turns the radio off. Afterward, Tran wonders if he’s entitled to a reduction in his radio tax since he’s no longer listening to foreign broadcasts.

Another short deals with meeting P.O.W.’s. Tran has just returned from visiting his relatives in the country. He then mentions that he forgot to mail a letter. Helle asks about the letter and Tran replies that it’s a letter he was given by a prisoner to mail. “Are you crazy?” Helle asks. Tran then mentions that there were prisoners working on his relative’s farm and he became good friends with one. The prisoner spoke good German and asked Tran about a lot of things. When Helle disapproves, Tran says, “You mean it wasn’t all right?” Helle replies that Tran has as much sense as he has hair and goes on to explain how prisoners can transmit covert information through letters. “They are using every possible way to destroy our economy and our farms. He then says he’ll take the letter to the proper authorities. Tran then says concerning the mention of farms he bought a few pounds of butter at the train station and that he didn’t have to use his ration coupons. When he takes the butter out of his suitcase he discovers to his dismay that what he really bought was a brick, to which Helle replies, “Serves you right.”

Other episodes concerned hoarding metallic scrap, shopping on the black market, and illegal use of ration coupons to obtain goods. In each film Tran gets his comeuppance while Helle lectures him on doing the right thing.

The series was discontinued in 1940 after a Gestapo poll revealed that instead of being regarded as a heel, Tran was actually quite popular with audiences and his activities were looked upon favorably. When Goebbels read the report on the poll, he quickly pulled the films from circulation and cancelled the series.

One other point: while Jews are looked upon with disdain as being totally untrustworthy, the series steered clear of the heavy-handed anti-Semitism found in other movies such as Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), the 1940 “masterpiece” of Goebbels concerning Jews that was so disgusting that German audiences avoided it. It was later shown as an indoctrination film to SS recruits and did surprising well in Nazi-occupied countries such as France and Czechoslovakia.

Episodes from the series can be found on You Tube and can be accessed by typing in “Tran and Helle.”

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