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Evil Genius: South Park Takes Aim At The 'Ugly German'

Essay: "South Park," the popular and sometimes over-the-top American animated series, has just aired an episode in Germany built around harsh German stereotypes, with allusions to the Nazi era. How does the cliché of the German lack of h

South Park's version of Angela Merkel on stage with the 'Funnybot' (Comedy Central)
South Park's version of Angela Merkel on stage with the "Funnybot" (Comedy Central)
Ulf Poschardt

BERLIN - Germans matter again.

We can credit Germany's economic success, growing national confidence, and an evermore crucial leadership role in Europe. But we must remember that this new role has consequences. Inevitably, the more seriously Germans are taken, the more they become a target of ridicule and derision.

Earlier this year, it was time for the over-the-top-cringe-inducing folk of "South Park" to take on The Germans. In the "Funnybot" episode of an animated series that by now has won virtually every prize for low-blow, but high-standard television entertainment, German characters march into the South Park elementary school to protest against having been given a Comedy Award for being the un-funniest country on earth.

"The Germans' – high-ranking politicians led by the country's President Christian Wulff and Chancellor Angela Merkel – react to the award with a complete and absolute lack of humor. They storm the school armed with guns to force the kids to reverse the vote.

The trembling kids expect the worst. The only one who speaks German is a full-blown anti-Semite who offers Wulff a scapegoat – Kyle, a "juicy Jew." This is the point where the laughter of most Germans -- who viewed the episode for the first time when it aired on Sunday in Germany -- got stuck in their throats.

The way The Germans appear on "South Park" follows an Anglo-Saxon tradition of fascination with a supposed Germanic evil genius that has been associated with the country since at least 1933. The animated Merkel and Wulff characters, as well as current Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, follow in the footsteps of Christoph Waltz, the actor who played SS Colonel Hans Landa in the Quentin Tarantino movie "Inglourious Basterds': they represent a sadistic, amoral fusion of intelligence and formality, utterly devoid of humor.

Waltz got an Oscar for his portrayal of an abysmal character who ends up cooperating with American Nazi hunters. Landa speaks several languages fluently and is possessed of a steely charm that underneath all the cultivation reveals the beast within.

In Bryan Singer's 2008 "Valkyrie", Tom Cruise plays resistance fighter Claus von Stauffenberg in a high-drama heroic way that has nothing to do with the laid-back American heroes of John Wayne, Luke Skywalker or Eddie Murphy. Steven Spielberg's Holocaust movie "Schindler's List" juxtaposes two radically different kinds of human beings: the good and courageous Oskar Schindler (an ethnic German born in what is now the Czech Republic) -- and the abnormal, evil Austrian Amon Göth. All of which is to say that Germanic types are not usually portrayed by Americans as peaceful, relaxed, or positioned on any measured, middle ground.

Monsters with an over-developed intellect

In fact: whether it's in the jarring erotic movies of Russ Meyer, the sarcastic adventures of the Simpsons, or the cynical punch lines of American sitcoms, Germans tend to be presented in terms linked to the most dismal chapter of their country's history. As a general rule, the monsters have over-developed intellects that have somehow disconnected from all that is moral and human.

Ironically perhaps, German firms have long been using this image to their advantage. Volkswagen advertised the new Golf GTI 2006 with spots in which a German engineer destroys the souped-up car of an American teen and utters the words "Unpimp the Auto" in heavily-accented English. The whole world laughed at that and registered that the Germans had learned to laugh at themselves.

The VW advertising followed the same strategy that the Düsseldorf band Kraftwerk discovered as early as the 1970s. After the huge success of their "Autobahn" album in the United States, they toured the country with meticulously cut hair, form-fitting suits and high-tech sound, billing themselves as the "Children of Wernher von Braun and Fritz Lang."

Their über-cool style scared the best-known pop journalist of the day, Lester Bangs, so much that after band members cut off an interview saying they were tired, he expressed relief that they were human enough to at least need sleep.

The steely heart of "Funnybot"

Before the barbaric German politicians leave in the "South-Park" episode, they bring in a robot created by German engineers – who gets laughs. As far as scoring points is concerned, the power of the Germans would appear to be scariest when it emanates from an artificial intelligence.

"Funnybot" appeals so much to the American public because it takes the most vulgar Anglo-Saxon humor, condenses it however schematically to its nihilistic essence, and then plays it back. The German engineers have studied the grammar and language of the Americans so precisely that in the end "Funnybot" comes up with better punch lines than American comedians.

The moment that has Americans hanging on every word from the metallic lips of the "Funnybot" is when the German robot reveals what he stands for: genocide. He is an exterminator who aims to wipe out his audience, indeed to stamp out the whole world and all the people in it. It's the ultimate joke, the last and best punch line.

That the canny South Park kids manage to prevent this at the last minute accords entirely with American "Happy Ending" logic – while of course the Germans once again enrich pop culture as Apocalypse virtuosos. There's no getting around the fact that in everyday culture, at least, associations of Germany and death won't die anytime soon.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Comedy Central

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Influencer Union? The Next Labor Rights Battle May Be For Social Media Creators

With the end of the Hollywood writers and actors strikes, the creator economy is the next frontier for organized labor.

​photograph of a smartphone on a selfie stick

Smartphone on a selfie stick

Steve Gale/Unsplash
David Craig and Stuart Cunningham

Hollywood writers and actors recently proved that they could go toe-to-toe with powerful media conglomerates. After going on strike in the summer of 2023, they secured better pay, more transparency from streaming services and safeguards from having their work exploited or replaced by artificial intelligence.

But the future of entertainment extends well beyond Hollywood. Social media creators – otherwise known as influencers, YouTubers, TikTokers, vloggers and live streamers – entertain and inform a vast portion of the planet.

✉️ You can receive our Bon Vivant selection of fresh reads on international culture, food & travel directly in your inbox. Subscribe here.

For the past decade, we’ve mapped the contours and dimensions of the global social media entertainment industry. Unlike their Hollywood counterparts, these creators struggle to be seen as entertainers worthy of basic labor protections.

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