Adapted from the novel by Timur Vermes, Look Who’s Back is a darkly satirical look at politics and seemingly toothless celebrity culture.
Adolf Hitler awakes inexplicably – his clothes smoking as if born of fire – in a Berlin park. It is 2014, and needless to say his appearance causes some consternation. One of the most evil figures from history suddenly brought into the modern world. People believe he is a lookalike or a comedian and are amused, impressed by his commitment to the role. He comes across as a cold, single minded, old-fashioned but fairly ordinary and charismatic man. Hitler narrates the tale, as in the book, explaining how he learns where he is and what has happened in the intervening time.
The original book Look Who’s Back is told in the first person by Adolf Hitler and as a result it’s distressingly easy to be swept along by the narrative – finding him comic and even sympathetic. Being an anti-hero we are occasionally appalled by what he says, but equally find ourselves surprised with how oddly reasonable his behaviour is. He’s a man. A person. Just horribly misguided to the point of malevolence. He is the narrator so we want to see what he does next. The satire is very subtle and almost feels more of an attack on the vacuous nature of the people obsessed with celebrity and online stardom.
In the movie version the satire is far clearer. Yes the concept of the easily led electorate is underpinned by the vacuous nature of Hitler’s rise to fame on YouTube and then on TV in the modern world. But the German populace of 2014 are shown as thinking of him as a funny man with silly hair who says the wrong thing. Although a German film, it doesn’t take much for audiences in the UK and USA to connect the themes with the horribly right-wing but inexplicably popular figures of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.
What a film can do which a novel can’t is shoot ad-hoc, handheld documentary footage – and this is exactly what this movie does. The story becomes a mix of scripted satiric narrative and a Borat style opportunity to allow real people with appallingly racist opinions enough rope to hang themselves. Real people are seen on screen showing support for Hitler and giving neo-Nazi and far right opinions. Other people are seen smiling and laughing and giving mock Nazi salutes – taking selfies with Hitler. The idea that it’s all just a laugh becomes increasingly uncomfortable.
It is an amusing film. An incredibly well judged homage to the movie Downfall is astonishingly well done, and very, very funny. Satire is thought provoking before funny, and the ideas are unsettling and provoking, underlining the flippancy and misunderstanding of attitudes. A scene with writers being asked to write racist one-liners is horribly fascinating, the writers even exclaiming “Jesus” as the jokes are read out. When the presenter of the TV show Whoa Dude! complains to his producer about Hitler being featured in his show he says “With Hitler, it’s always a fine line.” He says this as he is being blacked up by a make-up artist to present the show as Barack Obama.
In a key moment a Holocaust survivor says, with horror, “…back then, people were laughing first too.” Later when confronted about the idea of seizing power, and manipulating the media Hitler makes the point that in 1933 “the Germans elected me.” Although everyone assumes he is a method actor who doesn’t drop character he never once denies who he is. Or who he was.
In moving away from just Hitler’s point of view in the novel we see how people around him come the realisation that things aren’t so well. The way this pans out means the movie has a perhaps more satisfying structure than the book. As it ends we see footage of the state of the world, news reports from Europe, reports about the continuing migrant crisis and the demonisation of sections of society and the point is reinforced, it is a similar situation to early the Twentieth Century. With a horribly placed set of circumstances in place, could history repeat itself?
Look Who’s Back makes its UK Premiere on Netflix and is available there exclusively now, having been optioned by the online company since its screening in German cinemas last year. If you’ve read the book it will be of particular interest, but even if you haven’t it is worth a look.