Er Ist Wieder Da (Look Who’s Back): Written and directed by David Wnendt. Starring: Oliver Masucci, Fabian Busch, Katja Riemann, Christoph Maria Herbst, Franziska Wulf. Running Time: 116 minutes. Based on the novel of the same name by Timur Vermes.
We all know who Adolf Hitler is (or at least we should know, and if any of you reading this don’t, get off my lawn). We know about World War II, the Holocaust, the genesis of the Cold War, etc. etc. We have memorials about the war and the victims, museums, and an entire country created expressly because of the targeted genocide of Jews. And we have movies. So, so, so, SO many movies, all together summing up a single, statement of purpose; this cannot happen again. It WILL not happen again. We know how bad it can get now. We know how far off-kilter an entire country can go, and we know what all the warning signs look like, Hitler’s dead, and Jews have their own country, so now we’re good. We know what we know, so all this shit can’t possible come about again.
But do we really know? For all the lip service people (German especially) pay to these past events, all memories dim with time and death, so how can we be sure the mistakes that allowed Hitler to rise can’t possibly come about again? And….wait, aren’t a lot of them happening again already? These questions are the backbone of Timur Vermes’ 2011 bestseller, Er Ist Wieder Da, and now, 4 years later, it has come back to us in movie form.
It is 2014. Adolf Hitler suddenly wakes up in the middle of Berlin. Perfectly healthy and unwounded, but somehow a good 7 decades in the future, long after the end of the war and his presumed death. The why is not addressed in the book, and it’s not addressed here, so don’t let that question stick in your head too long- he is simply here, and incredibly disoriented and confused. He wanders the streets, unable to understand why no one can recognize him as their beloved Führer, until he happens across a small coffee stand run by an average Joe. Thinking Hitler to just be a really extreme method actor, he puts him up for a few nights until one of his frequent customers, a recently-fired employee of the nearby television production company MyTV named Fabian Sawatzki, comes along and meets him as well. He also thinks Hitler is just a really dedicated method-comedian, doing Hitler totally straight-faced to be “ironic.” He and the stand manager both find it hilarious, and he hatches a scheme to use this person as his ticket back into the big house.
On his end, Hitler figures out very quickly he’s experienced some strange form of time travel and is most definitely not in Aryan Kansas anymore. He is shocked and disheartened by how far back his goals and plans have been set (and more than offended when he uncovers the many attempts by actors to portray him over the years), but never one to give up, he decides to start from scratch, and decides to follow along with Sawatzki so as to use TV as the medium through which he will rebuild his following, taking each opportunity to rise further as it presents itself.
They start small, but things snowball quickly- a few scenes shot around the Germany with him just chatting with regular people are enough to get them a spot on one of MyTV’s premier shows, under the ever-watchful eyes of the company’s head producers (and mutual rivals) Katja Bellini and Christoph Sensenbrink, and aided by a gothic secretary named Krömeier, who may or may not have a crush on Sawatzki. From there, through sheer dint of personality and his refusal to follow any of the shallow scripts the company writers provide for him, Hitler and his overt, outlandish style become a Youtube sensation, rapidly eclipsing the more established performers alongside him, and setting off one controversy after another with everything he says and does (including barging into the official HQ of a far-right German political party). As his fanbase and popularity grows, the only question is how far things will go before someone- anyone- realizes the truth about who he is.
It’s hard to pin down precisely what kind of story this is. It’s part satire of our modern, click-obsessed culture, where the more outlandish, graphic, or terrible something is, the better, part fish-out-of-water tale, part pitch-black comedy about how the worst elements in human nature rear their ugly heads again and again. It’s also part TV-documentary, since large stretches of the film consist of raw-looking, handheld footage of Hitler just driving around Germany and talking to people, whose reactions to a Hitler-lookalike appearing in their midst vary widely (it’s clear some of these were made without the people knowing they were in an actual movie). Most, like Sawatzki and his colleagues, just laugh it off or dismiss it as a crude publicity stunt, and happily sit down for him to sketch them. It can’t be anything serious, because after all, they (and we) all know what we know- the REAL Hitler’s dead, and the lessons have been learned, so no harm, right?
On the surface, this may strike one as a major weakness with the whole plot- how can no one figure out that it really IS Hitler they are talking with? Why does no one think to stop him? Well…..would you? We have become so skeptical as a society, and so ready to assume there must be a rational, logical reason for something we see or experience that, in a way, this movie works BECAUSE it fully copies our expectations of a wholly rational world where all can be known and explained, and then tosses in a simple fact diametrically opposed to it. The clash between our 21st century mindset and the very existence of Hitler, back again against all possible explanation, are the meeting of an unstoppable force and an immovable object, and it’s the backbone of both most of the comedy and the more serious messages of the tale.
Since the movie is entirely driven by Hitler’s own perspective, this is the sort of film that lives or dies by the performance of its lead actor. Fortunately, Oliver Masucci commits himself entirely to the role (something many people would not be remotely willing to consider), and it’s hypnotic to watch him go to town on hapless comedians, pedestrians, and politicians who literally haven’t the foggiest clue with whom they are speaking. And like in the book, he’s really the only figure worth taking note of; the other characters above are present, but don’t really play any major role in the story other than to reflect aspects of its broad themes. That said, there are some notable changes from the book, particularly where Sensenbrink and Sawatzki are concerned. Sawatzki is a bit more of a pathetic, hapless figure with a much broader story arc (although revealing more than that would be a huge spoiler). Sensenbrink is inexplicably made into a side villain, doing all sorts of petty things to derail Hitler and Sawatzki’s ascent into primetime, and failing spectacularly. While it does lead to a direct and fantastically funny reference to Der Untergang (Downfall in English, which featured possibly the best-known film rendition of Hitler to date, excluding Chaplin’s), it also fails to be of any real relevance to the rest of the film, and is dropped entirely by the end.
Strangely enough, I found the movie to be at its best during the moments (especially during the mind-bending third act) when it deviated from the book entirely, even directly breaking the fourth wall on a few occasions. The sections following the other characters and tracking Hitler’s rise as a TV/internet star, which hew very closely to the book, are certainly well-made, but also by the numbers, and they don’t gel well with the nuttier and more direct-messaging stuff in the rest of the running time. It’s a dissonance that is, in my view, the film’s greatest weakness, but thankfully it’s never a fatal one.
Another key difference that will ultimately boil down to taste is how it takes the passive or latent themes and messages in the book and makes them much more obvious and front-and-center. Even though it’s never stated (since we only ever hear Hitler’s perspective, and no others), the warning it’s trying to send is clear- the whole way we’ve gone about “learning” from events like WWII is all wrong. We so often try to push the Holocaust and everything associated off onto the shoulders of Hitler and a few cohorts of his, making it out to be something unique to that person and time. So as long as Hitler himself is around, it won’t happen again. We know what we know, remember?
This is, of course, disingenuous at best and a bald-faced lie at worst. Hitler was a product of his time, and as he himself reminds characters in the book and movie, he had (at least at first) legitimate popular sovereignty behind him. His guilt is our guilt. And yet, as he himself also points out, since he openly declared his plans and the people chose him anyway, “not EVERYTHING could have been so bad.” How to reconcile this with our immediate moral revulsion to what really happened is the primary question the book and film present us with, and neither provide an answer. You’ll be left chewing on it for a long time afterwards, with an uncomfortable aftertaste lingering at the back of the mouth. If this is not the case, then you weren’t really paying attention the whole time, or you’re keeping yourself deliberately ignorant. While the movie making this more explicit and in-your-face than the book certainly removes some of the novel’s brilliant subtlety, it also lends its powerful ending a more forceful urgency, which I did not find to be inappropriate given many recent world events.
But then again, maybe I’m overblowing the seriousness of this. People suffered then, but it’s time to move on, right? As Bellini points out herself in a final interview, hasn’t the shadow of the past been hanging over German spirits long enough? Haven’t they earned the right to move forward? We’ve recorded and memorialized everything, and we’ve stopped telling Jewish jokes, so time to strike out for the future. It’s not like things that extreme could ever happen again, at least not here.
After all, we know what we know. You know?