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Film Review: Look Who’s Back

Look Who’s Back (Er ist wieder da) (2015; Directed by David Wnendt)

Everyone knows Adolf Hitler – Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, self-styled dictatorial fascist Führer of the Third Reich and the Nazi Party, primary architect of World War II and the Holocaust, and general consensus Worst Man in History – died in his bunker beneath besieged Berlin in April 1945. What David Wnendt’s satirical film Look Who’s Back presupposes is… maybe he didn’t. Or he did, but then mysteriously came back seven decades later to become a media celebrity and ride the unsettled wave of European xenophobia to a sinister political comeback.

Based on the best-selling German novel by Timur Vermes, Look Who’s Back (its German title more directly translates as He’s Back) alternates between the staged and acted sequences of its plot and unscripted Sacha Baron Cohen-style interactions between its Hitler (Oliver Masucci) and ordinary German citizens, which almost invariably reveal a disturbing level of agreement between modern Germans and the charismatic monster who haunts their country’s history. There’s a core of biting satire at the heart of this film, but it’s frequently buried beneath layers of awkwardly broad Germanic comedy and errors of historical inattention.

Reappearing in the middle of Berlin on the former site of the bunker which hosted him in his final days, Hitler holes up in a newsstand and digests the developments of the previous seventy years. He’s sought out by a hapless freelance documentary filmmaker named Fabian Sawatzki (Fabian Busch), who caught the Führer’s inauspicious return in the background of footage he was shooting for a limp human-interest piece that he hopes will save his job with commercial television station MyTV. Blown away by what he believes to be a comedian’s dedicated and seamless impersonation of the Nazi leader, Sawatzki takes Hitler on a road trip across Germany in his mother’s floral delivery van, filming as they go. His footage convinces rival MyTV executives (Katja Riemann and Christoph Maria Herbst) to take a chance on using Hitler for some offensive anti-immigrant humour on a “politically incorrect” comedy show, but the Führer goes off script and strikes a deeper chord with the German public.

Look Who’s Back is very much a product of Germany’s contemporary cultural and political context, and as a result can be a tad obtuse to an outsider. A montage of blundering domestic politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, is accompanied by the withering disdain of Masucci’s Hitler, who pines for his principled rivals of the leftist Weimar period and finds surprising common ground with the Green Party’s environmentalist protection of the Fatherland. Although Masucci is excellent – funny and menacing in turn, sympathetically baffled by modern trappings but with the chilling adaptability of a charming political cobra – the supporting cast around him is mostly reduced to goofy behind-the-scenes media and office scenarios. Like the broadly offensive comedy show (Whoa, Dude) on which Hitler debuts, the general comic tone outside of Masucci’s improvised interactions with the general public does not imply the most positive things about the state of German comedy. One must note a clear exception: a spot-on parody of the best-known scene from Downfall, the acclaimed drama about Hitler’s last days, that will spark immediate appreciative recognition from internet meme aficionados.

There are glaring errors in Look Who’s Back‘s version of Adolf Hitler as well. Told by the newsstand attendant about his many Turkish customers, Hitler wonders if the Ottoman Empire had turned the tide of the war in the Axis’ favour, despite having been on history’s scrap heap for two decades by the 1940s. Even more difficult to swallow is an incident in which Hitler shoots a dog dead for biting him, the later-revealed footage of which is a serious hiccup in his rise to fame with MyTV. Look Who’s Back passes the episode off as being consistent with Hitler’s appetite for harsh discipline and cruelty, but it’s known that Hitler was also a vegetarian who deeply deplored cruelty to animals and had a particularly strong affection for canines.

Despite these hitches in its step, Look Who’s Back returns with a dogged satirical focus to its central point: despite generations of official legal and educational efforts to dissuade Germans from the ideology of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, a resurrected Hitler would find much sympathy and even enthusiasm for his ideas of populist nationalism among modern Germans. It is, of course, a cliche to liken even relatively mild expressions of conservative authoritarianism or racism or xenophobia to the views and practices of Hitler and Nazism (Godwin’s law and all that). But Timur Vermes (a co-writer on the script of Wnendt’s film version of his book) sees in Europe’s Islamophobic unrest ripe conditions for the rise to power of far-right demagogues of the Hitlerian type, and Wnendt makes that comparison explicit in the film’s closing moments (“I can work with this,” Hitler thinks, riding in an open Mercedes convertible and being greeted by a troubling number of Nazi salutes). Germany is not above another Adolf Hitler, Look Who’s Back suggests. Faults of its construction and comedic sensibility prevent it from making this point as strongly as it might have done, but the point is there, hard to miss and important not to dismiss.

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Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews
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