‘Look Who’s Back’ Is a Most Terrifying Comedy
Germany's Hitler film is a stark warning
Hitler and the director are in trouble.
They’ve got a good thing going — driving around Germany and capturing people’s reactions to the return of the Fuhrer. The director knows the footage will sell for a mint, but he needs to cover his expenses. The studio won’t front him the cash and Hitler is broke … but he’s got a suggestion.
“What did I do before I got into politics?” Hitler asks the director.
“A painter?” the director responds timidly. In moments, the pair set up shop in a public square. Hitler, wearing a suit and surrounded by his work, attends to a throng of people eager to have the former dictator create caricatures of them.
It’s a funny scene. Hitler paints grotesque nudes of a woman and she laughs. He draws an older balding man crying in a prison camp. Everyone’s having a good time until a middle-age man wanders into the scene. He’s horrified.
“If, in 2014, someone can show up in a public square and act like Hitler and get away with it … that’s a bad sign for Germany,” the man says. He’s right.
This is Er Ist Wieder Da or Look Who’s Back, a German dark comedy about Hitler showing up in the present day. The unnamed observer states the thesis of the movie in the first half hour. He gives away its secret, but most people will be too busy laughing to notice.
Er Ist Wieder Da is based on the novel of the same name by Timur Vermes. The story starts with Hitler waking up in 2014 on the spot where his bunker once stood. His coat is torn and he smells terrible, but otherwise he’s no worse for wear. There’s no gaping head wound.
He stumbles through the streets of Berlin, comes across some newspapers and is promptly horrified by the state of modern Germany. “The country is now led by an awkward woman who looks like a weeping willow,” he says when he learns of Angela Merkel. “She works with the Bavarian Christian drinkers to form a pitiful copy of National Socialism.”
He compares the Socialist Democratic Party leaders to a wet towel and a bloated chicken. He believes the Green Party is Germany’s only hope. They want to protect the motherland, and Hitler can get behind that, but he’s irritated by their rejection of nuclear power.
“We need uranium for weapons,” he explains.
As Hitler ponders over the news of the day, Fabian Sawatzki wonders how he’s going to make enough cash to move out of his mother’s house. Sawatzki is a wannabe director doing schlock work for a local T.V. station.
The station didn’t want his latest feature — a documentary about impoverished youth playing soccer. But as Sawatzki reviews the footage, he notices something strange. In the background of one of his shots, a man dressed as Hitler wanders, as if lost.
Sawatzki tracks down Hitler, thinking he’s just a method actor or comedian pretending to be the Fuhrer. Sawatzki wants to film him interacting with Germans. He thinks it’ll jump-start his career. Hitler agrees — but only because he sees television as his way back into politics.
Director David Wnendt has done a brilliant job adapting Vermes’ novel. The film is a mix of scripted scenes that move the plot forward and Borat-style man-on-the-street moments where Hitler mixes with the German public.
Look Who’s Back starts by doubling down on its ridiculous premise with some wacky slapstick moments. The dictator is attacked by bees, chased by dogs and confused by modern slang. It’s hilarious. But Wnendt is using this comedy to wear away at the audience. It’s a trick.
Early on, Hitler realizes how powerful today’s television and the Internet are. He also realizes how terrible most of the programming is. When he’s given an opportunity to join a comedy variety show, he jumps at the chance.
But Hitler doesn’t read the distasteful jokes about Jews and Muslims the writers provide for him. Instead, he stares at the camera, building anticipating and making the crowd wallow in the silence. When he speaks and it’s like Howard Beale in Network.
The dictator tells the people that the shows they’re watching are garbage. “When times are tough, people want comforting programs,” he explains. “I understand. In 1944, we produced light comedy films … [but Germany] is running towards an abyss and we do not see because television blinds us. Instead, we watch cooking shows.”
Dank Hitler memes. Constantin Films capture
And that’s when the movie takes a turn. Oliver Masucci is incredible as Hitler. Most media portray the Fuhrer as either a clown or a super-villain. But Masucci somehow manages to do a slapstick Hitler that’s still ruthless, intelligent … and charismatic.
I’ve never before seen a performance of Hitler that made me understand why Germany elected him. He was a gassy little Austrian with a Charlie Chaplin mustache and delusions of grandeur. Masucci makes him menacing.
He listens to the German people as they tell him their woes during the Boratesque sections. Most realize it’s a gag, but more than a few are open and honest about their dislike of immigrants and the decline of German society. Masucci makes them feel heard. He nods and makes promises. It never feels like a joke.
Late in the film, Hitler visits the home of Sawatzki’s girlfriend. She lives with her grandmother, an elderly Jewish woman with dementia. She recognizes Hitler immediately and tries to push him out of the house. Her granddaughter tries to calm her down, explaining it’s all a joke. “He’s funny, a satirist,” she says.
“He looks the same,” the grandmother replies. “Back then, people laughed at him at first.”
She’s right and it’s scary. Europeans and Americans are far enough away from World War II that we’ve forgotten how easy it is to come under the sway of a silly strong man. Hitler seems ridiculous to now because we’ve forgotten how far a good populist can go. We’re beginning to remember, however.
Look Who’s Back is especially relevant in our current election cycle. The polis must be weary of demagoguery and vigilant of fascism. So often it comes in ridiculous packages that make us laugh until it hurts.
Netflix will premiere Look Who’s Back on April 9.