The German movie, Er ist wieder da (available on Netflix as Look Who’s Back), is no ordinary political comedy. On one level it’s quite disturbing and not a comedy at all, while at the some time it is a brilliant and hilarious satire. The premise is that Hitler is somehow not dead and finds himself in modern Berlin. He’s taken in by a desperate free-lance film-maker who introduces him to a set of conniving TV executives seeking ratings with what they think is a comedy act. But he’s no comedian. He’s really Hitler, adapting to our times and re-building political support.
There are many successful movies featuring Hitler, including The Producers, The Great Dictator, and (one of my all time favorites) Inglourious Basterds, but they generally portray Hitler as a buffoon. In this film Hitler is occasionally buffoonish, but he is also a keen observer of people and politics. He immediately detects that Germany’s current nationalist party, the NDP, would be an inadequate vehicle for his return to power. He even storms their headquarters and denounces them as a pack of losers, which they obviously are. Instead, he sees potential for the rise of authoritarianism in the Green Party. That’s both astute and hilarious.
The film also mixes scripted scenes with improvised ones in which Hitler encounters real people on the streets of Germany. He’s shown (for the most part) being warmly received, with people taking selfies and laughing. Perhaps they also think he is a comedian and are going along with the joke. But others give him Nazi salutes and describe their complaints about immigrants. He listens as a very sympathetic and effective politician.
At one point a “man on the street” share his vision of democracy with Hitler. He says that we need a democracy that is willing to put its foot down more: “That’s how we do it! Point, finished! No discussion!” Hitler replies, “You’re absolutely right, and that is exactly my kind of democracy!” Again, both astute and hilarious.
There are many ways a movie like this could go wrong and at times it does go off the rails, but not very often. The film could become a heavy-handed parable about today’s nationalist politicians. It avoids that by emphasizing how today’s nationalists lack the skill and energy that Hitler possessed. At the same time, the film does not attribute to Hitler magical powers to hypnotize us into backing authoritarianism. It shows us as either wanting authoritarianism or being too easily distracted by frivolous things to bother to stop it. Hitler is just capable of exploiting that opportunity.
The film’s mixture of real and fictional, comedy and serious commentary, are disorienting. At one point a TV executive warns what she thinks is comedian Hitler not to do jokes about Jews because they aren’t funny. Hitler agrees that there is nothing funny about Jews. That is simultaneously serious commentary and a hilarious joke.
Look Who’s Back at times feels like Borat but it is more like the brilliant 1976 Oscar-winning movie, Network. It’s a satire that is often more serious than funny and more disturbingly accurately than most dramas. If you haven’t seen Network you really should. It’s as if the script writer, Paddy Chayefsky, had a time machine and could see how TV news would turn into its current manifestations of 24 Hour News channels and Twitter. Let’s hope Look Who’s Back is not similarly prescient.