It's a German comedy about Adolf Hitler being time warped to 21st century Berlin - and it might just be the best social satire in any medium from the last 20 years.
By: Jimbo X
In 2012, German author Timur Vermes published a book titled Look Who's Back. The slapstick satire - about Adolf Hitler magically being transported to modern day Deutschland and becoming a breakout television star - quickly rose to the top of the bestseller list (this, despite the fact that Mein Kampf effectively remained "banned" in the country.) Naturally, it was only a matter of time until somebody out there got a hold of the movie rights, and the end result - a 2015 production that broke box office records in die vatarland - is now available to all der volk on Netflix as an instant streaming selection.
And folks, you need to stop whatever you are doing and watch it RIGHT NOW. I am dead serious - click out of this article, pull up the Netflix app and start viewing Look Who's Back. Whatever shit you've got going on for the next two hours can wait. You can always feed your kids later or finish that spreadsheet at work tomorrow, but soaking up arguably the greatest work of pure social satire in at least two decades is something you simply cannot procrastinate about.
When most people use the term "social satire," they usually mean Horation satires - that being, tongue-in-cheek, on-the-nose comedic works a'la the stuff Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce wrote. What is considered contemporary social satire - your South Parks, your Daily Shows, your endless array of regressivley worse Sacha Baron Cohen movies, etc. - however, is really more akin to the Juvenlian form of satire, in which the point isn't to address the inherent folly of man through self-deprecating, introspective humor but to crucify your political rivals through scorn and mockery. While the film certainly has a pointed political message, Look Who's Back is one of the few satirical works in ANY medium over the last 25 years that can rightly be considered a classical Horation composition. The objective of the film isn't to espouse its own ideology as the "supreme" one or to paint opposing schools of thoughts as wrongheaded, prejudiced or downright malevolent. Rather, it is a film keenly aware of the peculiarities of the times, a way-ahead-of-the-curve comedy that almost feels like a work 20 years into the future reflecting on our modern way of life as that lamentable point in time and space where everything went wrong. This isn't a self-blinded comedy utterly infatuated with its own temporality as are modern Hollywood comedies like The Boss or Neighbors 2 or even Zootopia and Deadpool. Instead, this is an indelibly percipient movie that KNOWS everybody in German society is playing an active part in its inevitable decline; indeed, it might just be the most supraliminal German work since the heyday of the silent era expressionists, whose dreary, phatasmagoric films seemed to almost metaphysically portend the arrival of the Third Reich decades in advance.
The premise of Look Who's Back is, at heart, your standard “fish out of water” yarn. Through some unexplained supernatural phenomena, Die Fuhrer is somehow transported to Berlin, circa 2014, right on top of the bunker where he would've offed himself in 1945. After being awakened by some kids playing soccer in the ghettos, the most famous, mustachioed Austrian of all-time is taken in by a newsstand operator, who believes old A.H. is just a really, really dedicated performance artist. Meanwhile, our time-displaced dictator laments the current state of German affairs, bemoaning Angela Merkel, expressing his solidarity with, of all factions, Germany’s green political party (environmentalism, he says, is a strictly Aryan conceptualization) and enjoying that mass-produced wonder of 21st century foodstuffs, individually-wrapped granola bars.
From there, we’re introduced to the film’s secondary character, a down-on-his-luck freelance reporter in dire need of a big story to salvage his stagnating career. Eventually, he runs into ‘dolf at the newsstand and presumes he’s just some sort of post-post-modern comedian. Hopping in his mom’s van, the sad-sack journalist takes the temporally transplanted totalitarian on a tour of contemporary Germany, along the way quizzing him on his thoughts on modern society.
At this point in the film, the movie takes on a sort of Borat/Bruno vibe, largely focusing on the reactions of real Germans to the reemergence of Hitler - who, fittingly enough, resumes his painting pastime as a town square caricaturist. He then meets up with several real Germans who are not only A-OK posing for selfies with him, but venting about all of those “Salafists” coming into the country and screwing everything up for everybody. He also rendezvouses with a few members of the National Democratic Party of Germany, but he isn’t too impressed by what he sees. “They think they can start the Fourth Reich,” he says, “when they can’t even put together a shelf from IKEA.”
After photos and videos go viral online, the reporter pitches the “faux Fuhrer” to one of Germany’s biggest television networks, and they agree to put Hitler on the air as a special guest on a lowbrow variety program (whose writers expect him to run down a list of anti-Semitic jokes they penned for him). In the interim, Hitler exalts the network’s constantly vaping head honcho as a woman of the same caliber as Leni Riefenstahl and cries over Wikipedia, which he considers one of the greatest Nordic accomplishments in history.
After Hitler makes his network TV debut, he becomes an overnight sensation. YouTube is abuzz with chatter from confused commentators, who find themselves begrudgingly coming to agree with his views on the depravity of mainstream entertainment. Alas, his stardom is momentarily derailed after footage emerges showing him shooting a puppy, but that inadvertently benefits him by giving him free time to write a full-fledged sequel to Mein Kampf. As the network ratings slip, the public clamors for more A.H., and that’s when the reporter protagonist starts suspecting he might be the REAL Adolf after all. After Hitler is oh-so-ironically pummeled half-to-death by neo-Nazis, he becomes a bona-fide public hero, with a big movie based on his second life going into production. This leads to a legitimately thrilling climax that’s one of the tensest, and most philosophically intriguing, finales in recent cinema history: can our disgraced reporter reveal A.H. to the masses before it is too late, or will all that contemporary nativist sentiment among the Volksgemeinschaft allow ‘dolf an opportunity to rekindle his old political ambitions?
All in all, Look Who's Back is an incredibly rich movie-going experience. It would be one thing if it was simply an outlandish, provocative, anti-P.C. comedy – which it most certainly is – but it's also one of the most intellectual, non-judgmental, politically conscious films to come down the pipes in years. Granted, there are at least two scenes that serve as ominous take-thats to the emerging ultra-right nationalists in the E.U. – one in which an elderly Jewish women confronts A.H. and says history is repeating itself and the film’s closer, in which footage of anti-immigrant rallies are juxtaposed with images of real Germans giving Nazi salutes while he rides down the street in a convertible – but for the most part, the film shies away from taking sides on the ongoing refugee debate (even though so many non-actors in the film openly express their discontent with the influx of asylum seekers.) The film can just as easily be read as a diatribe against Germany’s guilt-complex, a hilarious tirade showing the unhealthiness of the nation’s obsession with making amends for the “evilness” of something that happened 40 years before any of them were even born.
Oliver Masucci - pardon the pun - kills it as Hitler. He conveys such an incredible air of foreboding terror and exquisite comedic timing that I would be hard-pressed to say I’ve ever seen a more nuanced depiction of Adolf in any form of media (and yes, that includes Bruno Ganz’s meme-tastic performance in 2004’s Downfall.) Speaking of, Look Who's Back also contains one of the greatest spoofs of the “Hitler reacts” fad you’ll ever see – and, it doesn’t even involve Hitler as the central character!
I’m not joking when I say Masucci puts on an Oscar-caliber performance here. It’s one thing to portray a historical figure accurately in a period piece, but to take one of the most reviled people who has ever lived and transform them into a semi-likable – and almost sympathetic – comedic figure really requires some acting chops. At times, Masucci is absolutely hilarious, fuddling Arabian dry cleaners (his character thinks the large Muslim minority population is attributable to the Ottoman Empire joining the Axis forces), and at others, he is downright Heath Ledger-levels of amoral-scary, with his first televised speech, and his big rooftop soliloquy at the tail end of the film, nearly reaching Daniel Day Lewis levels of riveting.
The rest of the cast is quite good, but they remain rather one-dimensional (as the plot would necessitate considering the subject material.) The film is masterfully directed by David Wnendt, whose previous films Wetlands and Combat Girls more or less makes him the bastard, Germanic lovechild of Four Lions maestro Chris Morris and America shock-meister Harmony Korine. Indeed, one would have to go all the way back to 1998’s Happiness to find a film with a premise so audience-alienating yet at the same time, so unexpectedly entertaining and well-developed.
In the pantheon of Horation satires, this one is definitely up there with the best of the best, including such (mostly) apolitical titans as Sullivan's Travels, Catch-22 and The Boondocks' infamous "Return of the King" episode. This is a film that realizes that true social commentary comedy isn’t rooted in smarmy, SNL and Bill Maher-type “I’m better than the rest of you” humor, but in the half-tragic, half-hilarious realization that you are just as much swept up in the generalized madness of the world as everyone else. If horror is thematically about obfuscation, then comedy ought to be about clarification, and Look Who's Back is just about the most perceptive satire to roll down the pike in 20 years. It’s a film totally aware of rising nativist sentiments and the absurdity of German’s post-Hitler guilt complex. It’s a film totally aware of the emerging discord in society, and how ridiculously deep political correctness has become a part of the shared cultural experience. It’s a film totally aware that techno-modernity is devoid of identity or soul, and how unbearably hypocritical we are when it comes to forcing people to celebrate diversity and selectively remember their own ancestral history.
And on top of all that? It’s one of the funniest goddamn movies I’ve seen in ages. Simply put, you need to see this one, and immediately.
Four Tofu Dogs out of Four.