- Constantin Film, 2015
- Adolf Hitler proves a master manipulator, even 70 years after his death.
Perhaps more than any historical figure, Adolf Hitler—the man and his legacy—is a complex mix of revulsion, fascination and comedy.
Architect of some of the greatest crimes ever committed; cynical manipulator of an emerging mass media culture; hijacker of one of the world's most sophisticated cultures; purveyor of a toxic philosophy of race, pseudo-science, militarism and chauvinism, Hitler manifests the darkest aspects of both modernity and medievalism, progress and regression.
He is also widely caricatured as a buffoon.
From Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator to Mel Brooks' The Producers to countless "Hitler Reacts To..." Internet memes re-appropriating the serious gotterdammerung bunker scene in Downfall, Hitler's idiosyncrasies have captured onlookers' fascination since before he unleashed panzers on Poland. From his side-swept, shellacked forelock to his toothbrush mustache and wild oratorical posturing—no less his given name, Schicklgruber—Hitler is comedic gold, even as he is everyone else's nightmare.
Hitlerian comedy is stock-in-trade in countries like England (the Monty Python players couldn't leave him alone) and the United States (catsthatlooklikehitler.com), but not so much in Germany. That changed in October 2015, with the release of Er ist wieder da (Look Who's Back), a mockumentary that topped German box offices for months—and is now streaming on Netflix.
Based on the satirical novel of the same name—also released in 2015—Look Who's Back, from director David Wnendt and Constantin Film, dives deep into the cognitive dissonance that the mere sight of Hitler's face can evoke. The film poster itself plays on the theme, featuring nothing more than a stylized swoop of black hair and the title written in a small box, approximating his mustache.
- Constantin Film, 2015
In the opening scenes of Look Who's Back, Hitler, wearing a tattered uniform, awakens in the scrubby back alley where his Fuhrer bunker once sat. There is no explanation for why he has suddenly come back from the dead. No lightning bolts or fuzzy interdimensional rift. Just a dazed Hitler, laying in the weeds, whiffs of smoke rising from his clothes. He remarks in voice over about a headache before being promptly hit by an errant soccer ball.
The year is 2014 and Hitler is back in a Berlin he can scarcely comprehend. As he stands to get his bearings, a videographer, working on a documentary about how soccer helps underprivileged kids, accidentally captures a shot of the dictator bumbling around in the bushes. The filmmaker doesn't know what he has until after a falling out with the trashy tabloid TV station he freelances for.
Meanwhile, Hitler—played with impeccable vocal precision by Oliver Masucci—wanders the streets trying to make sense of what he sees. Noting the preponderance of Turks in the neighborhood, he assumes Turkey has joined the Axis Powers. However, watching happy Berliners ride bikes, tap at their smartphones and generally enjoy life, he concludes something has gone very wrong.
When the Fuhrer washes up at a newsstand, he demands to be given shelter. The proprietor, tickled by who he thinks is a performance artist, takes him in.
For his part, Hitler can't figure out why no one is taking him seriously. When the footage of him goes viral, he is swept up by the tabloid station and made a star. Everyone is laughing but him, as he realizes he's been given another opportunity to enter politics—this time, in a brutal satirical turn, for the Green Party.
The ease with which Hitler changes out of his uniform and into a suit—and gains a following—is the dark heart of the satire. Preaching a thinly veiled anti-immigrant message peppered with populist promises about standard of living improvements and dealing with unemployment, he finds enthusiastic support from selfie-snapping passersby who can't seem to figure out whether they're agreeing with Hitler or in on the joke.
Deeply funny though it is, Look Who's Back was shot during the onset of the refugee crisis in Europe and predated the wilder moments of the United States presidential campaign. Its timing couldn't have been better. The wider message about the ease with which democratic societies ditch their principles when confronted with fear and a savvy media campaign infuses the film with a deep chill.
Look Who's Back has been criticized for humanizing Hitler—and it does to the degree that Hitler was/is a human who had to worry about doing laundry and struggled to understand unfamiliar technology—but the upshot is that it shines a light on the inhumanity that lingers just below the surface of polite society.
Hitler will never come back, but the forces that helped fuel his philosophy never went away.