‘Look Who’s Back’: A Critical Commentary
Last week, the German film adaptation of Timur Vermes’ bestselling book Er ist wieder da (Look Who’s Back) was released in cinemas across Germany, while British audiences got a taste of it with a two-part radio drama on BBC Radio 4. ‘Look Who’s Back’ begins with Hitler waking up in contemporary Berlin and becoming a celebrity; in the German film, Hitler chooses to “follow his calling” (politics) and tour the country to speak to members of the public about contemporary issues. The plot of the BBC radio drama is similar, though portions are Anglicised for a British audience. HTTP contributors Tiia, Simon and Gaëlle give critical commentary on these two adaptations, and the fictional and literal return of Hitler to the twenty-first century.
TS: What does everyone think about the time travel aspect? How convincing are Hitler’s actions?
SC: From a sci-fi fan’s perspective, the means of Hitler’s arrival is interesting – he seems to have been plucked out of 1945 some time shortly before his suicide, and has no knowledge of it, but his uniform’s still doused with petrol, and the world still believes he committed suicide… So when on Earth has he come from? This isn’t really addressed in the BBC dramatization, and doesn’t need to be, but trying to imagine how the time travel took place is a fun distraction.
I’m not entirely sure about Hitler’s accent (or Eva Braun’s) in the BBC version – it makes it sound as though the adaptation has been geared too much towards British pop cultural representations of Hitler and the Second World War (for those of you familiar with the television show ‘Allo ‘Allo, that’s the sort of cartoonishness I mean). Also, since this version is still set in Germany, why is Hitler the only one with a German accent? If the producers wanted to use some sort of translation convention, why not have him use an English accent like everyone else? Then, later on, the kiosk owner imitates his voice, with the German accent. Does that accent stand in for Hitler’s specific Austrian one? If so, the translation convention is more sophisticated than I gave the producers credit for. Still, there are other examples of their reliance on stereotypes (including their over-use of words such as Fräulein) that lead me to doubt it!
TS: It was bizarre! Was it as an attempt to differentiate Hitler from the rest of the populace? As in, ‘Hitler could never be one of us Brits’ type of thing? In addition, I disliked the use of different British classes to distinguish characters. Clever, in that it made you visualise people based on stereotype, but ultimately, it makes me critical of those stereotypes. Gaëlle, how does this work in the German version? Does everyone just sound, well, ‘normal’?
GF: To me, the time travel aspect is completely unrealistic. In the German film it’s clear from the outset that the whole thing, the story itself and the production, is a joke or an experiment. The characters in the film are caricatural and none of the ‘real people’ Hitler encounters (members of the public who agreed to be filmed) believe he is real, of course. The prank element is therefore always in the foreground. However, the interactions with those he meets are very real and therefore also realistic. The reactions range from disgust to approval, but also include surprise, bewilderment and excitement. In one scene, Hitler wanders aimlessly around the Brandenburg Gate, and dozens of people assault him to take a selfie. A few of them pose and raise their arm. One can easily picture this happening.
More to the point, however, the realism stems from the fact that the film includes a kind of ‘mirror device’. Vermes’ own book, the bestselling account of Hitler’s return to modern Germany, becomes part of the film when Hitler sits down to write “his second book” and this is an account of his return to modern Germany. The book is hugely successful. Its reception on social media (Twitter, YouTube etc.) and by the mainstream media replicates the reception of Vermes’ book two years ago when #Hitler was trending. Hitler is then recruited to act in the film based on the book. This IS the film we are watching. The story thus turns on itself and the camera is somehow directed back at you, the audience. You are part of the phenomenon; you are engaging with this return of Hitler and somehow enjoying it; you are watching yourself. So the whole film plays with this tension between reality and fiction. Not simply the what if but the how would YOU behave? In other words, it’s never clear whether this is a mockumentary or a documentary.
SC: That’s fascinating, actually – the BBC version uses a similar framing device, presenting the programme as a special broadcast prepared by Hitler to tell his story to the British public, now that his influence is spreading beyond Germany again. I had thought that this was just the producers’ wry way of acknowledging the English translation, but perhaps it’s a ‘mirror device’ along the same lines as the one in the German film, albeit one that plays a much smaller role in the story.
TS: In the British radio version, the voice acting was rather…British. What do we think about the British adaptation of the German populace? How does this differ from the German film version, GF?
GF: I think this is very interesting because the German film is so clearly targeted at a German audience. This confirms that there is a nationally-determined way to deal with Hitler. His representations are culturally untranslatable. Besides, it is interesting to note that in the German film his accent only has a slight Austrian twang. What stands out is the choppy, quasi-militaristic tone and his use of outdated terms. As such, he speaks differently from all the others because he belongs to a bygone period. Yet this simply makes the resonance of his words all the more astonishing and incongruent.
TS: How realistic is the interpretation of Hitler?
GF: In the film version, Oliver Masucci’s personification of Hitler is quite masterful. Considering the role was to ‘act Hitler’ and undoubtedly required improvisation, Masucci gives an amazing performance. His height and large build notwithstanding, the looks also fit the bill. From a historian’s perspective, however, this is clearly a caricature. This Hitler is a bundle of clichés: a vegetarian dog-lover passionate about the mountains, the motorways and technology. For obvious reasons, his anti-Semitism is toned down. Yet the topic is not completely silenced. One of the characters has a Jewish grandmother that finds him anything but funny and before his big TV appearance, Hitler is reminded by the producer that “Jews are not a laughing matter”. To this, he retorts that he could not agree more. This is crass but ultimately, I would argue that it is this irony that makes room for laughter and distance. It is not realistic of course. On many occasions, the corner of Masucci’s mouth lifts a little as he searches for the most provocative response in character. In these moments, it seems as though Hitler himself is about to start laughing at the absurdity of his own comments.
TS: It seems to me that the author captured Hitler as a human, and you see him being the ridiculous, but serious man he probably was – vain about his appearance and rather short-tempered. I enjoyed this image of Hitler, because it was incredibly ironic, as Gaëlle points out. It’s hilarious that he loves Wikipedia and the German Green Party! Ha!
SC: Yes, Hitler’s vanity and his bombastic arrogance were brilliantly done. His personality, and his overblown period dialogue, actually reminded me of the characterization of Ioann (Ivan the Terrible) in the Bulgakov satire (later adapted for the big screen as a Soviet farce) Ivan Vasilievich. While the Soviet story played its time-travelling tyrant entirely for laughs, though, this balances the comedy with more serious, even sinister, undertones. Despite Hitler’s bluster, his assumed primal connection with the German Volk remains his defining characteristic. His supercilious attitude is therefore combined with a sort of ‘man of the people’ outlook – witness the scene in which he asks a Turkish kiosk owner about his grievances with modern Germany, for instance. Seeing him operating like this in present-day society makes it easier to appreciate (in much the same way as the 2008 film Die Welle) just how seductively dangerous Hitler was.
I also enjoyed the way the BBC version slyly referenced other recent characterizations of Hitler, notably by mentioning Bruno Ganz, the Swiss actor who gave a bravura performance in the 2004 film Downfall (Der Untergang in German). I don’t think this is intended to encourage any comparison between Ganz’s and David Threlfall’s interpretations; rather, the kiosk owner’s treatment of the real Hitler, as the latest in a line of fictional representations, reflects the way in which the population underestimates him once he becomes a media personality. The dramatic irony inherent in those scenes, with the German people unable to see the danger standing (and indeed ranting) right in front of them, makes the listener uneasy – and rightly so.
TS: Part One of the BBC radio drama ends with Hitler’s controversial TV monologue, making him famous on YouTube. Thoughts on the monologue?
GF: This TV monologue is a high point in the film, as it marks Hitler’s ascension to stardom and is an opportunity for him to voice his opinion on contemporary Germany. Yet, I would argue that not only is this moment highly politicised and controversial, but so is the entire German film. No one escapes criticism: from Merkel the spineless leader, to the comical lefties or the Greens – with whom Hitler allegedly feels a kinship because of their dedication to protect the homeland. The NPD (Germany’s radical right-wing party) is not spared either. One of the leaders is caught unawares on camera, saying “Yes, I would agree with you, but [only] if you were real.” Stronger still than the attack on contemporary German political life is the critique of society as a whole; this is what this successful TV appearance points to. Are we really that different after seventy years of political education? The film shows that contemporary views on the economy and immigration are not all that dissimilar to Hitler’s ideology, and that they too are a threat to democracy.
TS: At the end, when the audience fell silent due to the monologue, I too felt shocked thinking, ‘what did he just say?!’ As Gaëlle points out, we haven’t changed much since 1945.
SC: The BBC version of this scene also includes an internal monologue in which Hitler describes his thrill at being in the spotlight once again. That manages to be pretty terrifying – after all, a television studio should be the place in which a time traveller from the 1940s is most out of his depth, but Hitler’s in his element.
TS: How effective is the comedy?
GF: Although it is a comedy, it has a bitter aftertaste. Is this really all that funny? I often felt ashamed to laugh – though reassured when others did. The film is much more lighthearted at the beginning than it is at the end. With Hitler gaining so much popularity, it is no longer a laughing matter. Besides, the exchanges with members of the public are often funny but at times shocking or even downright upsetting. When Hitler goes on a rant about the genetic loss of mixing races, a young woman answers “yes, precisely”. Later, a man is filmed explaining to Hitler how the average intelligence of the Germans is declining over time because of the presence of foreigners. This is, presumably, unscripted and makes you feel really uncomfortable. I found myself constantly wondering why people even agreed to this being broadcast. Besides, in the film, Hitler’s fame only wanes when they release the footage of him shooting a dog. This scene was hilarious – Hitler had wanted to buy a dog, and this one had clung to the coat in excitement and he just fired. Yet this turn of events is reminiscent of the outrage at the killing of the baby giraffe in the zoo in Copenhagen; it is more serious than funny, suggesting that our society deems this worse than hate speech. Only then does Hitler go off the air.
TS: The BBC Radio production of Part 1 was rather funny, being a satire of the German outlook towards foreigners and, ultimately, a critique of us Western Europeans. I enjoyed Hitler’s musings on contemporary music and television – both of which he realised were useful tools in disseminating propaganda to the masses. I think the ‘humor’ is meant to make us uncomfortable, as Gaëlle mentions, because it makes us examine ourselves and our innermost prejudices.
SC: Yes, I found the BBC version funny overall, though its most successful comic moments are also the most chilling. Hitler’s reaction to learning that Poland still exists, living its “artificial existence partly on Reich territory”, is definitely one such moment – as is his off-handed thought of sending a studio employee to Dachau. I also enjoyed his brief monologue lamenting that the German people did not destroy everything after their defeat in the war – it was comically exaggerated, of course, but slightly unsettling as we know that he did his best to bring this about.
On the other hand, for a story in which so much of the dialogue consists of xenophobic and revanchist raving, there’s an astonishing number of decent one-liners! One highlight for me was Hitler’s exasperated, “Germans today keep their waste more separated than their races!” – a line that manages to tap into and interrogate both old and new sources of German national pride, thereby reminding us how much Germany has undergone to get from one to the other.
As Tiia says, I’m sure the humour is meant to be this discomfiting, and achieving that balance (to the point where I’d describe the programme firstly as amusing, and secondly as thought-provoking) is no mean feat.
TS: Who is the target audience of the film in Germany?
GF: The cinema room on a Friday night at 8pm in Augsburg was packed and the audience was full of young people: groups of friends and couples in their teens and twenties. I have rarely heard Germans laugh so heartily at any film (my German flatmate confirmed this) and as the film ended someone heckled “Freedom!” (Freiheit). I think this is telling. In the film itself, there is an attempt to kill Hitler but it fails. He returns and says “I am part of you. You cannot get rid of me”. This is the collective “you” and it means “you, the Germans”. In my opinion, this sentence says it all. It explains both the film’s success in Germany and the audience themselves. Foreigners have publicly ridiculed Hitler for years, and so for the British, it may not feel exceptionally new. For the Germans however, the film is striking and transgressive because it demands that they laugh at themselves and relinquish the air of responsibility and deep concern they have adopted for years.