Is it reasonable to even joke that the man responsible for killing millions of innocent people could be considered a likable guy by many and might succeed in today's world?
How would you feel if someone suggested that you should watch a German comedy with subtitles whose premise is that Adolf Hitler awakened lying amongst some bushes in an urban park in modern day Berlin? I can tell you that when I stumbled on this film in the barren wasteland that makes up Netflix’ movie selection, I was feeling pretty skeptical, but also pretty desperate. So I decided to give it a try. My what a surprise….
The film is based on Timur Vermes’ debut novel by the same name, which became a runaway hit when it was first published in Germany, and has since been translated into countless other languages. It has also scored a pile of thoughtful reviews and essays. It has also stirred up a mountain of controversy in the process. Let’s face it, anything that suggests a lot of people in our modern day world might be quick to become fans of a guy like Hitler is going to challenge just about everyone save some of the more radical members of the Ku Klux Klan or NPD.
That the book has been made into a movie is perhaps no surprise. The narrative style used by Vermes easily works with the hand-held style of filming in the movie that lets us see things from the vantage point of several key characters. Some might think this would give the film an amateur feel that would detract from the story, but in the present case it gives it an added and somewhat creepy sense of authenticity.
The film opens with a few outtakes, then after some initial credits introduces us to the central character, played brilliantly by Oliver Masucci. Our view is not of Hitler laying stunned on the ground, rather, it is from his own eyes looking up into the sky through a blurr of tears. We share his confusion given the lack of a reference point, and we hear his inner narrative as he dusts himself off and faces his unexplained, abrupt, and absurd transit from the final moments in the literal centre of WWII to a scruffy patch of brush in the courtyard of a bland public housing apartment in 21st century Berlin. From here we switch our perspective frequently, seeing the world from Hitler’s eye’s and sharing his thoughts, then viewing the strange wake that he carves amongst the flotsam of modern humanity that surrounds him. As the movie progresses, our viewpoint multiplies to include twitter feeds, facebook posts, television shows, YouTube clips and even the impressions of the average man or woman on the street..
This is a movie where the unspeakable is spoken. The unthinkable is thought. The unimaginable is imagined. And though I initially found myself laughing out loud at the humor, I gradually became transfixed at the horror and the genius at work here. Not only is this not your average topic, it is not your average film.
As a therapist I was dumbstruck by one simple fact – that the entire movie, despite many moments that could be defined as vaudeville, camp, or theatre of the absurd – was entirely believable. Mascucci’s characterization of Hitler and the Hitler of the movie never for one second stray from the premise that this is entirely serious and really happening. What is just as astounding is that the reaction of everyone else to Hitler in the film is as at once ridiculous and eerily plausible. In some ways this is perhaps the most chilling portrayal of Hitler in moviemaking history, because despite being based on a historical character, this is not just a well worn story being retold, but a warning about how history is made. This is what makes the film initially hilarious and later terrifying. The plot somehow manages to weave in just about everything that was wrong with Hitler, use comedy to make perhaps the most scathing and personal critique of that horrible episode in history, and reveal how close we ride its edge even today. It will open your eyes to a completely different view of what is happening in Germany, Europe, and throughout most of the world including right under our noses here in North America, where the likes of Donald Trump have Liberals in the United States terrified that the sky is about to fall while their Republican counterparts express hope that he will “make America great again”.
In my undergraduate days a colleague of mine was taken up by reversal theory, a psychological notion that suggested our experience of humor comes about because of a sudden change of perspective that is at once shocking and absurd. This movie does more than just reverse things, it will turn your mind inside out and upside down. Behind the camp and the jokes is a very, very serious commentary that needs to be spoken loud and clear. Perhaps the ultimate brilliance is that the core message is brought home not by Massuci’s Hitler, but by the way everyone else in this film convinces you that they are not in on the joke. As I watched I could not help but notice a perilous doubt arise in my mind: could it be that some of these scenes were not scripted with actors but actually capture the spontaneous behavior and dialogue of real life people? Just as we struggle in today’s world to distinguish between facts and fake news, the boundary in Look Who’s Back between being funny and serious, and between fantasy and reality is much less clear than any of us would like to believe.
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