Can Germany Laugh About Hitler?

A dark German comedy resurrects the Fuehrer into the 21st century and shows how Germans would receive him the second time around.

AP

DPA - "Who have we got here then?" wonders a group of youths loitering in the parking lot on the former site of Hitler's bunker in Berlin as a familiar figure lurches towards them, dazed and wearing a tattered Nazi uniform.

This is the spot where the bodies of Adolf Hitler and his mistress Eva Braun are believed to have been burned after their suicide on April 30, 1945. Nearby stands the Holocaust Memorial, commemorating 6 million murdered Jews.

As taboo as the setting and scripting might sound, it's actually a pretty funny scene.

"Look Who's Back" is German director David Wnendt's film adaptation of the bestselling 2012 novel by Timur Vermes, which sold more than 2.3 million copies - 2 million of them in German, plus another 300,000 audiobooks - and was translated into 41 languages.

Wnendt, the acclaimed hand behind the film "Warrior," about the neo-Nazi scene, and the drama "Wetlands," ramps up the original plot a few notches in his rendition. As in the book, the reawakened Hitler forges a dazzling career as a television star because people take him for a gifted wacky political comedian. But the film version also holds a mirror up to the audience with uncomfortable proximity.

It shows how today's Germany receives a Hitler a second time round, allowing him to create a cozy line of communication with people. It sometimes cuts very close to the bone amid the current furious debate about immigration.

"It was important to bring reality to the film, to say something about our society today," says Wnendt.

Promoting the film through Germany with his leading man, 46-year-old Stuttgart-born actor Oliver Masucci from the Vienna Burgtheater, Wnendt had his "Fuehrer" chatting in full regalia to people on the street, from pensioners to the unemployed, Bavarian farmers and a dog breeder.

At times, the Hitler figure prompted some to broach their hidden fears or glibly gush political extremism, prejudice and xenophobia.

"They forgot relatively quickly that the two cameras were running and began to pour their hearts out to this man, to say what was really on their minds," Masucci told ARD public television.

The interview came in a month that saw thousands of Germans protest on the streets under the controversial banner of Pegida, an anti-foreigner group whose name translates to Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West.

"And then, shortly afterwards, we saw that in the Pegida movement. It didn't surprise us that they suddenly went into the streets, because this middle class that's swinging to the right, we'd already seen all that on camera," the actor adds.

In one real-life meeting with a neo-Nazi, the thespian Adolf is told that "My understanding of democracy is that one person exercises his authority and has a rollicking good time."

"That's mine too," nods Masucci's Hitler, playing along.

He and Wnendt came home with 380 hours of footage, parts of which can be seen as a documentary segment in "Look Who's Back." But, in the style of Sacha Baron Cohen's hit comedy "Borat," it's hard to tell whether the montage depicts a genuinely sinister tendency in contemporary Germany or is neatly staged for effect.

Like the book, the film adaptation takes a hard look at how well Hitler once again - or still - fits into modern Germany, although his fictitious employer, the My TV private channel seems to have no doubts: various producers and heads of department fight for control of this ratings-boosting clown from nowhere who is gifted with Hitler's looks and rasping voice.

The films also includes a deftly shot film-within-a-film element as the Fuehrer logs his daily life in diary form.

Unlike most films about the leader of the Third Reich, from Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" (1940) to Bernd Eichinger's "Downfall" (2004), the director and Masucci consciously avoid portraying their Fuehrer as the incarnation of evil.

"Hitler was a man and not a monster," says Wnendt. "Without the nation and the people who elected him voluntarily, his rise to power would not have happened."

The action closes with the Fuehrer driving in an open-top car through Berlin, graciously waving and being met with waves and the occasional Nazi salute. Only one man furiously raises his middle finger at him. But is that a contrived sequence of the unthinkable, or taken from the 380 hours of real footage? It's the uncertainty that completes this motion picture.