Friday, April 29, 2016

First-Person Hitler: Look Who's Back

Franziska Wulf and Oliver Masucci in Look Who's Back, currently streaming on Netflix.

“In the year 2014, if someone comes to the central square in Bayreuth [Germany] pretending to be Hitler and if that is tolerated by the general public, then I have to say: that is bad for Germany…"
– an unnamed German citizen, in an unscripted scene from Look Who's Back

"I can work with this."
– "Adolf Hitler" in Look Who's Back
In 2012, author Timur Vermes' comic novel Er ist wieder da (He is Back, in English) was published in Germany, and it quickly became a bestseller. The satirical story, told from the point of view of Adolf Hitler, describes the unlikely scenario of Hitler suddenly returning to modern-day Germany (then 2011), becoming a YouTube sensation, and eventually, in the book's final pages, mobilizing his fame to return to politics. The book was translated into English in 2014 by Jamie Bulloch as Look Who's Back (MacLehose Press). Last year, the novel was adapted into a film by German filmmaker David Wnendt (Wetlands, 2013). Three weeks ago, the English-subtitled version of Look Who's Back appeared on Netflix.

Reading Look Who's Back in English is a strange experience. Despite its controversial protagonist, its true subject matter is our own times, the cult of celebrity, and of course the state and self-understanding of contemporary Germany. The English-language translation helpfully includes an appendix that offers non-German readers a crib sheet on the lesser-known Nazis whose names appear in the book, a primer on German political parties and their acronyms, and some background on popular German TV personalities. Though most of the references will still fail to resonate for those of us who aren't current on German chat shows and comedians, we still share enough of the world for most of Vermes' satire to land. In the novel, everyone responds to "Hitler" as if he himself were the satirist, a bold comedian taking broad swipes at culture at large – a truth teller, a Method comic with a square mustache and a Nazi uniform. As a character and a narrator, Vermes' Hitler is a man who knows fully who he is and what he believes and seems utterly unable to dissemble – but no-one he who hears him takes him at his word. Instead, it is received as brilliant and pointed cultural critique, and he is eventually embraced by politicians and people of all political (and non-political) stripes. No-one takes Hitler seriously, it is implied, because no-one seems to take themselves very seriously.

In the end, fascism and German politics aside, Vermes' true object of satire may well be satire itself – with mixed results, since it serves, along the way, to implicitly call into question its own project. "YouTube Hitler," as he becomes known, is embraced by so many because everyone projects their own 'truths' upon him: the right-wingers see him as popularizing their unfairly vilified beliefs and the left-wingers as inverting those same beliefs ad absurdum. In short, "Hitler" appears to be a kind of blank slate where what his listeners discover is always essentially what they already have – where each takes exactly as much as is needed to confirm what they already believe and ignore the unpalatable rest. And so, in a very real way, it isn't simply popular culture and politics which are lampooned, but also the public that consumes it – a public which also would include the readers of Look Who's Back themselves. Vermes invites our identification with this "satirical" position and then, ever so lightly, mocks it and us as we work to meet him halfway. What if the satire of the novel the same as the "satire" offered by "YouTube Hitler" within the book? Can satire ever genuinely teach, or ever inspire real action? Or does it really only flatter us in our current state of passionate indifference, at best leaving us unmoved and at worst confirming and congealing us within that immobility, trapped in a kind of in-joke echo chamber? On the terms laid out by Look Who's Back, could satire ever really matter?

As a novel, Look Who's Back is quite readable – and often pointedly funny. For example, in a scene that appears almost verbatim in the film, the TV producer who's backing Hitler appearances has only one caveat for the soon-to-be television sensation: "There's only one thing I want to get straight," she tells him. "We're all agreed that the Jews are no laughing matter." To which Hitler responds, with relief, "You are absolutely right." Moments like these notwithstanding, however, as social criticism the book is rather lightweight. Hitler is buffoonish and bullheaded, an ideologue whose drunk his own Kool-Aid, and never quite understands that no-one is taking him seriously. The objects of mockery are themselves paper-thin (reality television, Twitter, lowest common denominator television) and concomitantly, caricaturing them gets thinner still.

What does make reading Look Who's Back ultimately insidiously powerful is the long term impact of living inside Adolf Hitler's head. The novel is written in the first person, and everyone we meet and everything we see is through the resurrected Führer's eyes – and this grows more and more unsettling as the book continues. And so when I'd heard about the film adaptation, my first thought was that this was the one untranslatable element in the move from page to screen. (Fight Club and Mr. Robot notwithstanding, there are few successful examples of unreliable narrators on the screen.) Understandably, then, Wnendt for the most part dispenses with that structure, regularly giving his Hitler some voice-over narration but also adding a number of significant scenes in which Hitler does't appear at all.

A man on the street speaks with Hitler (Oliver Masucci) in Look Who's Back.

With the relatively-unknown Oliver Masucci in the title role (Masucci's restrained performance is the best thing about the film), Look Who's Back ends quite powerfully, but is ultimately an uneven film. What Wnendt has created is really two distinct movies, and over the course the film each unfortunately cannibalizes the impact of the other. It opens, as the book does, with Hitler inexplicably waking up, in full Nazi regalia, in 21st century Berlin – somehow transported decades into the future from his final moments in his underground bunker. The camera follows him as he wanders through the city in the first of the film's Borat-inspired largely unscripted sequences. The reactions of real Berliners and tourists as the Führer stumbles through the Brandenburg Gate are recorded by the camera, as passersby pull him in for the requisite selfies. Hitler is soon discovered by Fabian Sawatzki (Fabian Busch), a struggling videographer who sees a scoop in this man "pretending" to be Hitler. And we spend the rest of the film's first act with Sawatzki and Hitler travelling Berlin and wider Germany, interacting with unsuspecting members of the German population. Initially amusing, most of these early scenes fall flat, mainly because the non-actors' reactions fall neatly into two, soon-to-be-predictable categories: light amusement at standing next to a man dressed up like Hitler (these are the selfie-takers) and blunt, anti-immigrant xenophobia – which seems to take only the smallest prodding to flow out. (Only two strong negative reactions to Hitler are represented in the first 45 minutes, and apparently those were the only two the filmmakers were provided, even after over 300 hours of footage.)

The problem with the film's recipe of mixing these real-life encounters with more-or-less conventionally-scripted scenes (a risk which admittedly Borat, and all of Sacha Baron Cohen's projects, also invites) is that it is hard for a viewer to know what is and is not scripted – and the difference genuinely matters. One scene involving Masucci's Hitler egging on a crowd of soccer hooligans, prompting them to attack another man, is genuinely (and morally) unsettling to watch – mitigated somewhat only after the fact by learning, from interviews, that the victim of the assault was, at least, a paid actor. Later in the film, these unscripted scenes return, with "Hitler" deliberately seeking out fringe politicians and citizens on the far-right. But an amusing scene of Hitler meeting the (real-life) head of the Bavarian wing of the populist AFD (Alternative for Germany) party segues into his visit to the Berlin headquarters of the neo-Nazi NPD (National Democratic Party) – but only because it more or less replicates a passage from the novel could I know that the latter scene was scripted. This isn't only distracting: it also made each element less engaging on its own terms. Why, I found myself regularly asking, did this scene need to be designed and not the other? It had the effect of make the real-life segments feel cowardly and the scripted scenes feel not nearly envelope-pushing enough. (There is a similar moment where a TV executive is sitting down with some comedy writers to come up with "extreme" material for Hitler's act, and the entire scene feels like it's in quotation marks, like it was supposed to be quote-unquote funny.) As attractive an idea as trying out Vermes' novelistic experiment on the actual streets of Germany must have been at the outset, in practice it regularly undercuts the narrative impact of the story the film is trying to tell. As it stands, it is only in the movie's final 30 minutes that something genuinely powerful begins to happen: not coincidentally at precisely the moment when the real-world sequences withdraw and when the script leaves the novel's story behind.

I can't help but believe that had Wnendt more confidence in the absurdism of the novel and resisted the temptation to let the real world interject until the movie's final moments, Look Who's Back could have been extraordinary, and especially timely in this era where the blurring of celebrity and politics have gone hand in hand with an emergent extremism. As it stands, as the film credits roll, our very real world breaks back into the film's – and there we briefly get a glimpse of how genuinely powerful that juxtaposition could have been.

– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large since 2010.  

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the informative review Mark.

    I just saw the film, and was amused by the Borat like quality of parts of it, and I was especially impressed with how Oliver Masucci captures what feels like what I imagine Hitler to be. It is easy to turn Hitler into a caricature, but this actor had me convinced that he had caught something of the man - at least the man I imagine.

    Your comment "(Only two strong negative reactions to Hitler are represented in the first 45 minutes, and apparently those were the only two the filmmakers were provided, even after over 300 hours of footage.)" is genuinely terrifying to me. Are we at such a point in our decline into simulacra and simulations that people have lost the ability to be pricked by the terrible shadow that still lurks inside, and which Herr Hitler was the perfect performance artist to put upon the stage of 1930's Germany? Are we staging a similar production today, or on the verge of it? The stage feels strangely familiar and though the sets have been brought up to date, the underlying themes are not so very different. The sheep want a simple narrative - one that is congruent with their anger, alienation, fear, and desire to inflict some serious harm - to regain their potency. This phantasmagoria has been nurtured out of violent seeds of vengeful imaginings and righteous indignations. It has made the Big Lie fashionable and palatable as it provides a means for the "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore" crowd to put their full ugly into political power.

    We live in terrifying times, made that way by the worst proclivities of our species. We have a terrible power and a hideous tendency to project destruction upon ourselves and the entire ecology. Evolution has given our species power without the ability to constrain or deal with unintended effects or the primitive drives within each of us. We open Pandora's boxes with the ease of putting on a pair of socks, while the abyss stretches its maw wide open from within each of us. Old irrational drives have a long and deep hold upon us, and we have yet to find a benign way of expressing them.

    Aldous Huxley in his last novel, "Island" said: "We cannot reason ourselves out of our basic irrationality. All we can do is learn the art of being irrational in a reasonable way."

    We still haven't learned that art, and we are rapidly running out of time. I wish I could say I am optimistic, but being human, being subject to the irrational - having an intimate awareness of its grip - I am in despair. Perhaps we will have a taste of it; something deep enough and deadly enough to shake us to the point where we grapple seriously with what Huxley suggests, and find a way to redirect our dangerous proclivities into forms of expression that are benign. I am not optimistic. The last century is chalk full of examples of the full ugly of human behaviour. We have to struggle with ourselves in ways that most of us do not even want to consider. It has come to the point that we avoid the mirror because we don't like what we see, and yet we must see it and begin the process of adapting lest we write our epitaph: "Man - intelligent, social, powerful; made extinct by his own hand."