Adolf Hitler is alive, well and hoping to make Germany great — again — in Look Who’s Back (Er ist wieder da), the new film from German iconoclast director David Wnendt (Wetlands, Combat Girls). A huge hit in Deutschland, this is a loose and somewhat disjointed adaptation of the best-seller by Timur Vermes, with both scripted scenes as well as Borat-style confrontations between “the real Hitler” (played by Italo-German thespian Oliver Masucci) and unsuspecting passers-by in various German cities, many of whom prefer to take selfies with Herr Hitler rather than take offense.
A curious item that’s an uncomfortable mix — only partly by design — of comedy, satire and a socio-political exploration of a still-festering wound from the recent past, this should interest niche distributors and broadcasters in Western Europe, though the film doesn’t dig deep enough nor generates sufficient belly laughs to become more than another Hitler-themed curiosity further afield. Dietrich Bruggemann’s recent festival hit Heil, while not as popular at home (but also not based on a runaway best-seller that sold over 2 million copies locally), was a more probing and funnier examination of similar material and might be better suited to fill that slot abroad.
Look Who’s Back’s premise is simple: Hitler wakes up in 2014 at the exact spot where he supposedly shot himself in his bunker, now a quiet residential area in Berlin. He’s not a day older than he was in 1945. There is no explanation for how this is possible but from a voiceover we gather he’s the real Hitler. From his first appearance, however, people around him think he’s an impersonator; early on, in a chuckle-inducing moment, a mime rather aggressively tells the Fuehrer to “f— off and get his own spot” when the former leader happens to stand right next to the silent artist.
Initially, Adolf struggles to make sense of the vastly changed world around him. What’s up with the multicultural side of Berlin, for example? Judging by the quantity of Turks in the capital, Hitler muses, perhaps the Ottoman Empire won the war and conquered Germany? A vagabond-like stay with a newspaper seller (Lars Rudolph) allows him to get finally up to date on the current situation, with the Fuehrer quickly dismissing “this Merkel woman” and Germany’s far right factions and taking an unexpected shine to the country’s Green Party.
Most of the early going’s Fascist-out-of-the-water jokes are worth a chuckle, though they are also scattershot and never feed into a larger world vision. After assuming that the Turks must have won the war, for example, they are practically never mentioned again.
The film’s main narrative thrust involves Fabian Sawatzki (Fabian Busch), a reporter who’s just been fired from the (fictional) MyTV channel, where Christoph (Christoph Maria Herbst, the voice of the original novel’s audiobook version) and Katja (Katja Riemann) are battling it out to become the new boss. But Sawatzki’s accidentally shot footage of the literal rise of Hitler from his grave becomes a ratings hit and turns Adolf into a TV personality that might just save MyTV and Sawatzki’s career. “Put him in everything!” barks the new program director and Hitler seizes the opportunity TV offers to reach millions to spread his message, only slightly altered for this new day and age.
Wnendt, who previously filmed the also supposedly unfilmable novel Wetlands and whose first film, Combat Girls, looked at young women who were part of a neo-Nazi group, at first sight seems like the person with the right background to tackle this complex project. But the director, who’s in his late 30s, is too often out of his depth here and struggles to bring the heterogeneous strands of the film together into a single and coherent whole.
Occasionally, even if the writing is never particularly sharp, the scripted scenes impress because Masucci is a strong actor who realizes he doesn’t need to overdo the overly familiar mannerisms to suggest something about the essence of a person. But the idea of Hitler waking up today and trying to make sense of the world around him should be much funnier than it is here and, especially, be much more politically engaged and pointed. When the hardest laughs in a comedy about Hitler come from the antics involving a man from 1945 trying to wrap his head around the Internet, it’s clear the feature’s not very interested in politics or morality at all, or at least not very successful in attempting to be just that.
Though the idea of the Fuehrer re-emerging as a TV personality has some potential, the film never overtly draws parallels between Hitler’s original rise to power and the power TV personalities have or TV as a platform offers. Neither does the film suggest how Nazi-era audiovisual works, such as Leni Riefenstahl’s, are in many ways forerunners of today’s perverted media landscape, which gives some people an inordinate amount of power; a parallel that would’ve been very easy to draw and fascinating to explore. Similarly, the film awkwardly sidesteps the entire Jewish question save for a minor subplot involving an old lady that’s so badly set up, it almost seems like her being Jewish and meeting Hitler will simply become a punchline.
Look Who’s Back runs for almost two hours, with Wnendt struggling to do much with his many unscripted scenes, which mainly feature people not taking “the real Hitler” seriously (one righteously angry man excluded). The fact that a man dressed as Hitler has become a selfie-opportunity in the Germany of today more than something that provokes anger or invites any kind of reflection is in itself interesting, but the film doesn’t contextualize or comment on this development enough to suggest something meaningful about either contemporary German society or whether Hitler’s ideas and methods could potentially take root again beyond some ultra-niche groups.
Technically, the scripted scenes look like a well-lit TV drama while the more Borat-like scenes with “real people” have more of a rough-edged, reality TV look.
Production companies: Mythos Film Produktions, Constantin Film Produktion
Cast: Oliver Masucci, Fabian Busch, Christoph Maria Herbst, Katja Riemann, Franziska Wulf, Lars Rudolph, Michael Kessler, Michael Ostrowski, Gudrun Ritter, Christoph Zrenner
Director: David Wnendt
Screenplay: David Wnendt, Mizzi Meyer, based on the novel by Timur Vermes
Producers: Christoph Mueller, Lars Dittrich
Executive producer: Oliver Berben, Martin Moszkowicz
Director of photography: Hanno Lentz
Production designer: Jenny Roesler
Costume designer: Elke von Sivers
Editor: Andreas Wodraschke
Casting: Ulrike Mueller
Sales: Beta Cinema
No rating, 116 minutes