In a book review of Look Who’s Back, the stinging satire by German author Timur Vermes, published in 2012 and released here last year, Time magazine asked: “What would happen if Adolf Hitler woke up in modern-day Berlin? In a bestselling satirical novel, he’d end up a TV comedy star.”
The novel begins with a dazed and confused Herr Hitler waking from an inexplicable deep sleep on the cold ground in a park (where the infamous Führer bunker was once situated) after being hit with a soccer ball. Unaware that he has inexplicably time traveled to 2014, he walks clueless through the streets of Berlin in full Führer uniform until a bemused news-agent gives him food and a place to rest. Grateful yet imperious, Hitler demands to be treated according to his rank.
Back on the street he is recognized but as a curious impersonator. And during the course of the novel, he is interviewed on TV shows, given guest spots on comedy shows and garners many fans and high ratings for ranting about the state of Germany and the world. The absurdity behind it is tantalizing. The unintended similarity between Hitler and Donald Trump’s current rise in popularity is startling (although Hitler began as a dictator and became a TV star rather than the other way around).
Vermes’ book is well worth reading for how smartly he crafts this ridiculous yet possibly for some, tasteless scenario. And there are many laughs to be had. But if you want an immediate fix (or shiver down your spine), currently Neflix is streaming Look Who’s Back, the movie. And where the book offered the reader a kind of safe distance from the clash of fantasy and reality, the movie, directed by David Wnendt, places the viewer too close to the real, resulting in a kind of painful or guilty hilarity.
At the core of the film, an ambitious new chief of a German mass media company whose newspaper sales and TV ratings have plummeted, decides to hire Herr Hitler as a regular guest on one of its more sensationalistic comedy shows, with the caveat: “No bad talk about the Jews.” Believing destiny was guiding his course, Hitler accepts the terms but nonetheless gives a Hitlerian speech deriding immigrants, unemployment, liberal democracy and other betes noir that have caused Germany’s degeneration. The audience loves—adores—him. And that’s the funny part.
The satiric part, reminiscent of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, made me wince and squirm. The actor splendidly playing Hitler walks around Berlin’s actual MItte streets and through the Bavarian countryside greeting average Germans, most of whom are willingly captured on film, many warmly welcoming the long lost criminal leader—some seem even ready and willing to follow the Führer once more, while others simply want selfies.
These are not just Neo-Nazis (a couple of which in the scripted part of the film savagely beat Hitler, thinking he was indeed an ironic comedian attacking the Nazi icon) but all kinds of “volk”, young and old, male and female. Hitler attracts the news media, of course. And like any standard comedy, there are funny comic and slapstick tropes. He gets into scrapes, does politically incorrect things (like throw a plastic cup onto a pristine field of grass) and takes his uniform to the cleaning shop, where he insults the Arab-immigrant owners because he also wants his underpants cleaned and pressed.
The filmmakers, however, never obscure Hitler’s crimes, but their aim is to shine a light on how someone with such charisma spewing the “right” rhetoric can still move the German (or any other) people into an unthinkable place. Oy!
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