The CBS Home Entertainment/Paramount Release of a 28 DVD-set, “Hogan’s Heroes: The Komplete Series, Kommandant’s Kollection” reminds us of this early effort to find belated humor in Hitler’s war machine. Writer/director Billy Wilder’s much-admired 1953 film “Stalag 17,” was adapted from a play of the same name by two former POWs, and subtitled: “a comedy melodrama in three acts.” Deleting the melodrama, TV’s “Hogan’s Heroes,” which ran on CBS for 168 episodes from 1965 to 1971, went for outright laughs, successfully or not.
Ambiguously, “Hogan’s Heroes” cast all the principal roles of Nazi soldiers with Jewish actors, notably two Austrian Jews who were refugees from Hitler, Leon Askin (General Burkhalter) and John Banner (Sergeant Schultz). Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink), son of the eminent German-Jewish symphony conductor Otto Klemperer, had also fled the Nazis, arriving in Los Angeles in 1935. Was it somehow better to have buffoonish Nazis played by Jewish actors?
For refugee actors with accents, jobs in Hollywood were scarce, and Werner Klemperer, although he claimed to be “very proud” of the TV show, in later life strained for acceptance in the higher echelons of the arts, recording for Philips Classics the narration for Schoenberg’s oratorio “Gurre-Lieder,” and taking speaking roles onstage in Mozart operas.
Actor Robert Clary (prisoner Louis Lebeau) was born Robert Max Widerman to a family of Polish Jews who were deported from France to Buchenwald during the German Occupation. Clary is still thriving at age 83, although his career peaked with “Hogan’s Heroes.”
Of all these actors, the most distinguished theatrical career doubtless belongs to Leon Askin, born Leo Aschkenasy in 1907 to an Orthodox family in Vienna. Working with theatrical legends like Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator, Askin experienced Austrian antisemitism in the 1920s, survived an SS beating in 1933, and fled to America. In 1994, after long Broadway and Hollywood careers, Askin moved back to Vienna, where he continued to appear onstage into his mid-90s reciting Goethe, among others.
Askin and Clary’s indomitable survival instinct expresses something elemental about actors, especially Jewish actors, whether or not we find “Hogan’s Heroes” amusing.
Watch a 1984 PBS documentary, ‘Robert Clary A5714: A Memoir of Liberation,’ about one of the stars of ‘Hogan’s Heroes’: