Although the book Er Ist Weider Da (Translated into English as “Look Who’s Back,” although literally it should be “He’s here again”) was published in 2012, the German language movie released in 2015, Netflix picked it up in early 2016, I just now stumbled across this movie over the weekend. Probably an algorithmic thing (don’t ask).
Normally, I blog about either family history or science/science fiction. But in this case, let’s just call it science fictiony-historical satire with a dark edge.
It’s good. Scarily good. Hysterically funny in parts. Deeply, darkly disturbing in many others.
And completely misunderstood by most reviewers. Especially the ones writing only in English.
A key thing about fiction (novels and movies alike) is that (here’s the key) *the author does not have to agree with the sentiments of the main character.*
Now I know this comes as a surprise, but the point of Er Ist Weider Da is not to support right-wing causes. Anybody who reads the book (and especially who watches the movie) with half a brain can quickly figure out that the story makers find modern German society’s views of immigrants deeply concerning. They are seriously worried that history will repeat itself.
(Or, as a clever person once wrote, “History does not repeat itself. It does, however, rhyme.”)
Basically (for those who haven’t read or seen the story), Hitler is somehow transported (via the “Terminator” effect) to the park where his bunker used to be in Berlin. Finding himself in 2012 (2014 in the movie) he has several humorous encounters with modern life. Everyone he meets assumes he is a method actor/comedian who never leaves character, but he proceeds to slowly figure out how to regain political power via social media and TV by exploiting the xenophobic German public.
The movie, however, deviates from the book in three crucial aspects that make it far more effective—and help explain why it’s misunderstood by the Hollywood/Netflix/mainstream schlock-loving audience/reviewer.
First, the filmmakers deliberately chose to use the “Borat” style of filming large parts of the movie. The lead actor (who was not well known in Germany at the time) talked to ordinary Germans across the country and basically got them to agree with ultra right wing anti-foreigner extremist views, i.e., the Nazi agenda and racial philosophies. In the movie, this is depicted as part of a freelance filmmaker’s ploy to get his old job back by filming the outrageous things of someone he thinks is pretending to be Hitler.
In real life, the actor and the people he talks to all know that he is an actor, while of course the actor is supposed to be the real Hitler somehow transported to 2012 Germany and who is NOT acting but simply saying and doing what he would normally have said. So this is a metafictional element not present in the novel, which only adds to the social relevance.
(In addition, some of the real people the Hitler actor talks to are seriously mentally deficient, sometimes contradicting themselves two or three times within a few sentences. I think I’ve seen this kind of conversation/interview in the US fairly often recently…)
The second deviation is that, because the movie comes out after the book was published, the filmmakers can actually show the book being written by Hitler, himself (I mean the actor), instead of the original author. Then Hitler and his media helpers start to film a movie based on the book. So it’s a film within a film, based on a book which the original film was already based on. This is some serious metafiction going on here.
(Note that the reviews online never mention this part. This is because, by and large, professional reviewers are terrible at their jobs and usually have no ability to think outside the box. Some rarely think at all, come to think of it.)
The third deviation is the ending. One reviewer online commented that they didn’t care for the different ending. But they totally missed the point. In the novel, the tabloid paper Bild tries to take Hitler down but is sued and have to give up, handing more PR to the dictator. In the movie, a TV company uses him as a “comedian” and then proceeds to make him into an internet star. Later after they cancel his TV appearances, their ratings and advertising revenue plummet. So they agree to finance Hitler’s movie and guarantee him PR on TV. The media is completely complicit in spreading his propaganda, something the dictator realizes from the beginning.
I note that although reviewers point out that Hitler figures out quickly the advantages of social media, especially YouTube, they don’t mention that they, themselves are making money by writing about this. They, too, are complicit, as part of the media system. Everybody in media has a vested interest either in supporting or attacking, and both stances are simply more PR for the dictator. They can’t help themselves.
When the ending comes (a trick ending that is very cleverly done), Hitler simply stares at his antagonist and points out that people voted for him and followed him. So why condemn Hitler when they should be condemning the public, instead?
And that is the scary part. Not just that the average German he interacts with generally goes along with what he says, but that they find him so incredibly charming and likable.
And THAT is the point of the movie.
One reviewer complains that “it’s clear the feature’s not very interested in politics or morality at all, or at least not very successful in attempting to be just that.”
Uh. Did this person actually pay attention or did he fall asleep like the Hitler actor did while talking to NPD members?
Another says he wasn’t sure which scenes were “real” and which were scripted.
Um. That was kind of the point.
An incredibly vapid “preview” comments that he was looking forward to the Borat-style while also claiming it was a “Netflix original” movie. Er. No.
Only one reviewer seems to have come close, but still ignores the metafictional aspects entirely.
He concludes with a lengthy quote from yet another reviewer, who claims recent stories about Hitler stem from “a growing German desire to become as ‘normal’ as their Anglo-American neighbours and laugh at the Führer.”
But that comment is, firstly, about the book, not the movie, and also simply misses the point.
So why have these reviewers missed the point?
(In addition to being typical reviewers, I mean.)
- They saw that the movie was advertised as a “comedy,” so they assume that it is simply a comedy.
- They do not understand metafiction.
In other words, the reviewers are like most audiences. Satire is a challenging genre to write effectively, and those who create satire are constantly attacked by those who just don’t understand satire.
Metafiction is, apparently even harder to understand. Remember, this is NOT a Hollywood movie (and yet “Young Hollywood” and “Hollywood Reporter” tried, and utterly failed, to review it. Duh).
Evidently, the main complaint in the English-speaking world is that the author and the filmmakers don’t openly call Hitler “evil.” They don’t openly berate the public and the movie audience for finding him funny, or for agreeing with his hateful ideas. Even the very idea of showing that Hitler was, in fact, a human being who sometimes did funny things is not allowed. Somehow, they say, this will encourage us to think that he wasn’t really so bad, after all.
The movie actually has the actor portraying Hitler say, twice, “Things weren’t always so bad then.” But we know better. The filmmakers know better. This is an ironic statement, meant to be ironic, knowingly used in an ironic fashion.
But apparently we are not ready to use satire and irony.
It’s easier to continue to use Hitler as a symbol, as an icon, as a straw man. It’s easier to pretend that nobody followed him because he had friendly, likable, charming aspects to his personality. Does even saying that open myself to attacks? Probably. Nobody becomes a leader as effective as Hitler by being an asshole to everybody all the time. He was incredibly charismatic. Mesmerizing, even. The movie, especially, goes out of its way to depict the power of his persona.
So would standing on a soapbox and screaming “Evil!” help? Would it convince Neo-Nazis and their sympathizers not to uphold the Hitler icon? Would it convince the average German that the actor talked to, that constantly blaming foreigners for their problems is not the solution?
Somehow, I don’t think that works terribly well in Germany. Or in the US, or the UK, or Japan. Or anywhere, really.
Only one reviewer gets it. And then makes the inevitable comparison.
“We are racing towards the abyss,” Hitler declares on live television, “but we don’t see it because on TV, you cannot see the abyss.”
And this review came out at the end of May, 2016.
History clear does rhyme.
By the end of the movie, I found myself profoundly disturbed by what I had seen. I was also a bit concerned that I had found many earlier scenes funny. Sometimes hysterically funny, in fact. But why had I laughed?
I submit that *that* is the point of the movie. Laugh, yes. Realize that this person was sometimes funny, and sometimes charming. Realize that his ideas were hateful and destructive, divisive and downright vile.
But playing the “evil” card simplifies him and what he stood for into a simple black v white, good v evil dichotomy, and it does not lead to less vile actions or fewer vile people in the future. Nobody thinks of themselves as an “evil” person or a “villain.”
Not talking about it also does not help matters. Parroting standard responses to Hitler, using him as a cardboard character with which to compare the actions of others is not helpful. We routinely call people, especially politicians, we don’t like “another Hitler.” “Just like Hitler.” “He’s a Hitler.” “Hitleresque.”
Sociologist Henry Tajfel famously wrote about social groups, social categories, interpersonal and intergroup behavior and identities, to answer his own question (as someone who survived Nazi Germany, while the rest of his family perished) of why people follow authoritarians.
The reviewers who didn’t get this movie should look up his work on social identity theory. It might help them understand why simply shouting at people you disagree with is far less effective than watching, and discussing, an uncomfortable “darkly comedic” story such as this.