Er Ist Weider Da (Look Who’s Back)
Timur Vermes’ book was something that caught my eye a few times during its spell on Irish shelves, but I never felt the need to actually read it. Maybe the rather ludicrous premise put me off, or what seemed to be the promise of high-handed political sermonising wrapped up in a crude allegory. When the film version popped up on Netflix this week – having already garnered a fair amount of success in its German theatrical release last year – I was more minded to give it a go. Notwithstanding the easiness of digesting a film over a book, something in me felt that the situation described would be a better fit for visual comedy than on the page. Did it turn out to be so, or was Er Ist Weider Da every inch the property I thought it was when I first saw that rather ingenious book cover?
69 years after his suicide, Adolph Hitler (Oliver Masucci) suddenly awakens in modern-day Berlin, with no idea how he got there. People he encounters invariably think he is just some crazed man, or an overly committed method actor, but when he encounters struggling documentarian Fabien Sawatzki (Fabien Busch), a tour of the country brings him to national prominence, where he is suddenly hailed as a stunningly provocative social comedian. With popularity comes opportunity: the year might be different, but many things in Germany still seem similar to 1933.
Director David Wnendt had a bit of a task on his hands with this one, a film where fine lines would have to be navigated at a constant rate. Forget just depicting Adolph Hitler walking around modern-day Germany – a nation where Nazi symbols are banned by law – what about that trickier obstacle, the successful mixture of drama with comedy? And not only comedy, but the unscripted kind where the players involved don’t even realise what they are involved in?
Doing Borat with Adolph Hitler is something that actually works, to my surprise. It starts with just seeing Adolph Hitler stumble around the Brandenburg Gate, trying to find out where the Reich Chancellery is, to the bemusement of tourists. But then Er Ist Weider Da really opens up: Hitler interacting with business owners, Hitler drawing portraits for cash, Hitler chatting to modern day far right political leaders (who make him fall asleep). The set-up and execution is clearly drawing a line from the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen, and while this type of comedy isn’t usually my forte – I generally struggle to get a kick out of any comedy where the joke is on people unaware they are part of a comedy project – in Er Ist Weider Da the surrealisticness of it all actually keeps you engaged. Switching between genuine hand-held cinematography and the more faux-kind for fictionalised scenes with ease, Er Ist Weider Da has no problem sucking the audience in.
Germans of 2014 react to Hitler with laughs, with slight nervousness or with ironic Nazi salutes (or maybe some of them aren’t so ironic) and generally seem perfectly willing to play along with the charade. The film itself opens up with a ridiculous segment where Hitler talks to a real-life social etiquette expect, bemoaning how no-one gives him a salute when he walks in the door anymore, equating the action with that of a handshake. The expert is happy to play along.
The comedy comes in different shapes and sizes here. Simple “fish out of water” moments come and go fast – very early on, Hitler is nearly blindsided by a Segway tour – but at other times Wnendt is a bit more patient with the set-up, like an unfortunate encounter between Hitler and a Jack Russell terrier that comes back to bite him in the posterior later. But most of the time, it is the Borat-style of laughmaking that Er Ist Weider Da is trying to go for: If you’re not one for the sort of comedy that hinges on the awkward reactions of people to a ridiculous situation – like Adolph Hitler scrounging for petrol money by doing town square caricatures – then Er Ist Weider Da is likely to hold little attraction for you.
Wnendt’s point with all of this seems to be to showcase how a certain xenophobia, sometimes hidden, sometimes more outwardly expressed, is still quite evident in Germany. People complain about foreign kids, others that the “stigma” of World War Two prevents their fears on immigration from being rightfully expressed. The fact that they are talking to Adolph Hitler seems to make people open up about these things: after all, you’re hardly going to look bad when you’re standing next to history’s greatest monster. And they happily titter and ignore the awful things he comes out with, like promises to round up people who disagree with him, and relegating dark-skinned people to building autobahns when he regains power. In a way this is unfair, as the ordinary people being filmed at these moments know that they are talking to an actor portraying Hitler, and so it might be a bit much, from the director and the viewer, to expect them to react with horror and disgust. Laugh, it’s the best way to deal with him.
This thread continues all the way through the production, as Hitler’s prominence grows and he gets to interact with both fictional and real members of Neo-Nazi groups, segments that might make the viewer slightly uneasy. As feared, the higher point of the film is a bit heavy-handed: that the rise of Hitler was not due just to the unique time period, and could possibly be repeated in the right conditions, even today. Forget that this is a scenario that I fundamentally disagree with in the first place, and realise that Wnendt’s method of showing this onscreen, through Vermes’ book, lacks a real subtlety or believability, that damages the central thesis. Things are all just a bit too easy for Hitler, easier than they surely would be.
The idea seems to be a skewering of a media narrative of “rise-fall-redemption” that we often see perpetrated in different ways, but come on: this is Adolph Hitler we are talking about. The surrealism of the premise can only be taken so far before it becomes a fantasy, and the films closing moments, that draw a direct line between Hitler and the current political reaction to the refugee crisis, is as patronising as it heavy-handed. It isn’t satire anymore at that point, but a lecture.
This inherent ridiculousness punctuates the dramatic narrative, which focuses as much on Busch’s Sawatski, a sad-sack film-maker mooning over his employer’s secretary (a half-decent Franziska Wulf) and who sees in “Hitler” the chance to hit the big-time, but who gradually comes to realise that the person he shares a road trip with might actually be the real deal. The film gradually swings heavily into drama by the time you hit the third act, with older people’s reaction to Hitler firmly reminding the audience that the comedy can only go so far, and even if Adolph can crack a few jokes, he’s still the horrible monster responsible for a holocaust.
But maybe that’s why he’s taken as seriously as he is. His commentary on the German situation seems perfectly reasonable at times: protecting the environment (he recommends people vote Green Party), increasing employment and dealing with the vapidness of modern-day entertainment, remarking, in probably the film’s best moment, that all-encompassing cooking shows are an opiate preventing people from seeing the “abyss” Germany is heading towards. It’s deliberately meant to be emotive, convincing stuff, but without real substance to back it all up. In other words, the infectious rationale of Nazism. Wnendt is to be commended, even if I didn’t quite buy the effect, in showing how such an ideology could be presented to an audience today. In many ways, it’s like the comedy is a smokescreen for the more serious point, that only really starts to hit in around the halfway point, when Hitler begins to utilise TV and Youtube to become the nationally prominent figure he believes himself to be worthy of being.
A lot of actors have played Hitler, and while it is unlikely that anyone will be able to match the astounding turn of Bruno Ganz, Masucci plays the dictator remarkably well here. He is a complete straight man, playing in to everyone else’s misperception on of him, utilising the fact that he is believed to be a comedian to his own advantage. Masucci’s performance makes you really understand just how somebody like Hitler came to power in the first place. To put it simply, he says all the wrong things without sounding like they are all that wrong, and put the words in anyone else’s mouth and they would be genuinely convincing.
Masucci’s Hitler is as monstrous as they come, but not like Ganz’ Hitler, a pathetic old man wallowing in the destruction he had caused, but more like a politician at the height of their power, luxuriating in the fact that anything they say or do can be turned to their advantage. Multiple scenes where Hitler is placed opposite far-right leaders, all rather unimpressive, make the point. Men like Hitler come along only rarely, and it’s hard to play their game and win.
The film struggles in other areas. Christoph Maria Herbst’s Sensenbrink, a TV executive after promotion and willing to sabotage his boss to get it, gets an elongated and rather tired sub-plot, that only really perks your interest when it parodies Der Untergang and its most famous scene. The mixture of unscripted comedy and actual drama doesn’t work so well for Sawatski, whose arc enters proper melodrama by the third act. And the film’s ending struggles to satisfy: aside from the suddenly dark and morbid tone, a fake-out plot twist lands terribly, indicating that nobody, whether it was the author, the screenwriters, or the director knew quite the best way to end things.
The meta-ness of much of the production can be seen most firmly in the company behind: Constantin Pictures, the same company behind Der Untergang. At one time, they were actively attempting to suppress the famous “Unterganger” parodies that became such a viral sensation in 2009, but now they stand right behind the kind of film that came as a result of those parodies. But one can only take that oath so far: the Der Untergang parodies were practically a celebration of Hitler’s demise as much as anything else, but Er Ist Weider Da posits that his kind of evil is all too easily resurrected.
With its limited release opportunities, Er Ist Weider Da doesn’t seem likely to be one of the most famous depictions of Hitler to be made, notwithstanding its success in Germany itself. And, despite some of its problems, I deem that to be a shame. There’ a really funny premise in this, and the film is probably at its best when simply presenting the “man on the street” moments with Adolph Hitler, pontificating about Angela Merkel, Germany’s lack of uranium or cooking shows. It’s funny because of the disconnect between Hitler the historical tyrant and Hitler the modern-day figure of fun. It is when the film veers decidedly into the serious that it starts to stumble, and it’s falling over by the last few minutes. Anchored by Masucci’s strong performance, the overall film is better than its poor ending, and while it’s weighty political message is the kind of thing that brings Rick and Morty’s “Someone’s getting laid in college” line to mind, it’s still very much worth watching. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Constantin Films).