Look Who’s Back (Er ist wieder da), is a 2015 film based on Timur Vermes novel of the same name. To put the film simply, Hitler magically materializes in Berlin in 2014, completely oblivious to all events after his bunker retreat (including the Allied victory). The film follows him and his experiences in modern Berlin, during which he meets starving artist director Fabian Sawatzki. Fabian wishes to film this man, whom he assumes to be an unrivalled actor portraying Hitler. Taking full advantage of this opportunity by use of his devilish charm, and I emphasize devilish, Hitler emerges, as the top media sensation of the German nation (Youtube and Twitter being instrumental if not central to his rise).
But this is far from the first depiction; Hitler is a film genre – this should come as no surprise. The leader of the Nazis has made more film appearances (and surprisingly diverse ones at that) than many of our most beloved actors. From the very start of his posthumous cinematic career, Hitler in the limelight was and remains defined in a certain way. Just 23 years after the end of WWII Hitler made his debut on the American theatrical stage in The Producers’ Springtime for Hitler. In The Producers, the deranged ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind writes a play, Springtime for Hitler in full devotion to the Führer. The producers assume the audience will interpret it for what it is, a horrifically honest display of fascist love, but what was to be a flop becomes a sensation. Contrary to the expected hatred for this serious play, the audience rejoices at the satire that is Springtime for Hitler.
This shift in interpretation reveals a distinctive duality of the head Nazi, one that defines his role in cinematic production to this day: Hitler the clown and Hitler the Führer, or the two Hitlers. The dichotomy becomes apparent when one compares Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Downfall (der Untergang). There have even been films that have used both roles, forming a mix between satirical Hitler and horrific Hitler; the usual format and effect of this mixture is a joy ride of laughs followed by an unparalleled but justified buzzkill, the moment when one is forced to come to terms with the man behind the stash (this dualism is masterfully dealt with in Germany, where Hitler humor is coupled with a choking guilt that may very well cause suffocation.) This being said, among an endless cornucopia of Hitler films, each arguably fitting into the “two Hitlers” format, how would a new film in this genre set itself apart - and can it? Does David Wnendt’s version of the Führer Film, Look Who’s Back, provide us with something more?
While the magical absurdity of Adolf’s entrance, his use of social media for propaganda purposes, and his rise in modern day Germany are indeed silly, if not terrifying, they do not set this film apart. These factors alone would make it a rather trite Führer film, if such a thing is even possible. What is important, what makes this film stand out, takes us back to the dualism that we first glimpsed in The Producers, the mix and switch between satire and horror. In Look Who’s Back, Hitler is perceived as a masterful satirist, but a satirist nonetheless, and so the German people fall in love with the “actor.” However, as the viewer knows, it is Hitler incarnate, a man who fully intends to continue his Third or possibly found a Fourth Reich. But I must admit that even this dual nature of comedy/drama does not set the movie apart, because it too is a common theme for films featuring Hitler, at least in Germany. In spite of this, Look Who’s Back is unique, not because it makes use of the two Hitlers, but because of how it brings the laughable clown and the terrifying Führer together.
Most of the film treats Hitler in the form of a mockumentary. He waxes poetic in that all too familiar accent, insistent on his plans of world domination and flabbergasted that Poland still stands. In a particular moment, the laugh-then-horror motif is brilliantly brought about when the dog-loving Führer plays with a little Terrier, and upon being bitten blows its brains out (this last development could, for the more grotesque-inclined, function as dark humor). As the film continues, the moments of Hitler being taken seriously, then immediately being treated as a joke and vice versa begin to multiply. Brought on to a television show where he is intended to do some “Hitler humor”, Hitler shifts his focus, and after a dramatic silence speaks of the ills of modern society. Although initially humorous - for we all enjoy to bemoan those lesser sensationalist things in our world - by the end of his speech, the audience members are deeply moved and nodding in sincere agreement. Honestly, if you did not know Hitler was saying it, you might be nodding as well. This realization naturally calls forth an incomprehensible moment of fear; we realize that the audience (and possibly the viewer) could support and vote for this Hitler - but he is just an actor, so it is okay. In another moment Hitler meets the grandmother of Fabian’s girlfriend, who as a dementia-suffering Holocaust survivor believes correctly that it is the true Führer before her. In an indescribable rage, she screams for him to leave, astonished that her granddaughter could conceive to invite this man into her home. Afterwards Hitler consoles Fabian in the car, saying that having a Jewish girlfriend could be acceptable, so long as she is just part Jewish, having an acceptable blood level.
The moments of laughter and horror never merge fully, but are placed in such an order that each laugh is immediately destroyed by horror, and each horror is instantly erased by a laugh. Towards the end of the film, Fabian learns that his new friend is Hitler himself, and promptly loses it. For fear of giving too much of the film away, after a sunset moment with Hitler and thoughts of murder in mind, we find Fabian housed in an insane asylum, unable to deal with the reality that is Hitler. Hitler meanwhile takes his tour of Europe, eager to further his plans.
For those who can truly perceive Hitler in both ways, as cinema will have us do, the real wonder of Look Who’s Back becomes perceivable, and in this light Fabian’s insanity points to something important. For many, Hitler is and can only be a joke. They can only perceive Downfall as a series of powerful memes. Through this mindset, Look Who’s Back, like many other Hitler films, is just a satire. For the opposing group, which can only see Hitler as a murderous dictator, the film’s detail of Hitler’s second rise to power and the jokes about it only show the true nature of this evil; in the end, this man will kill millions in the name of his treasured Reich. For them, Look Who’s Back is a serious film, which questions our ability and right to laugh at the Führer. Even when we allow ourselves to see Hitler in one way at one time and in another way at another time, these two distinct perspectives remain an unmarried coupling. We compartmentalize them, so that we remain with two Hitlers, even if both are present in one film. However, there was and remains but one Hitler. It is not merely that we can perceive Hitler in one way as chokingly hilarious and in another way as incomprehensibly evil, for when we try to perceive Hitler truly in both ways as a single person, when we attempt to simultaneously laugh and scream at the Führer, we cease to function.
This total perspective of the Führer, in the merciless but comedically aware way David Wnendt delivers it through shutter-speed shifts between Hitler one and Hitler two, is what sets Looks Who’s Back apart. It unites, or really shows the inability to unite, the two Hitlers of film, and reveals in an even greater sense our inability as viewers to unite the joy of seeing this megalomaniac flounder and fail, and the fear and sorrow in knowing how dreadfully successful he really was. We as humans remain unable to simultaneously experience ultimate laughter and horror.