So there I was, innocently looking to see if Netflix carried older WW2 films like 36 Hours, when I spotted Hitler. “Look who’s back?” I said. “Oh dear.” I’d previously watched The Death of Stalin (Jason Isaacs is a ball as Zhukov) and thought this might be something similar, a kind of lampooning of various Nazis. It…wasn’t. For those who haven’t seen any reviews of the book, its premise is simple: Hitler inexplicably appears in modern-day Berlin, and after stumbling around in confusion he comes to grips with his situation, realizes that people are the same as they ever have been, and becomes a sensationally popular social media star. The book is incredibly amusing, despite its being narrated by an interpretation of Hitler, but I wasn’ t sure what its attraction would be for those not conversant with Germany’s domestic issues. The film is much different, with general appeal. It’s in the same dark comedy genre, but its ending is far more serious.
The film is a richer story all around, with characters other than Hitler getting fleshed out, some getting their own arcs; this proves especially important for one elderly character. Despite not being able to bombard the reader with puns, the movie manages to be similarly amusing: when Hitler is taught to use a computer and prompted to search, in Google, for anything he’s interested in, he promptly types in “WORLD DOMINATION”. The film also mixes in real scenes of Hitler interacting with people on the streets — and while some are disgusted, many others are amused and drawn to him — seeing in him, perhaps, a broadside against censorship, or more darkly a voice for their own contempt of others.
Although there are plenty of laughs to be had, the movie is more serious under the hood. Hitler’s criticisms of the world, for instance, are not simply racist tirades. In one scene, he is given a bunch of anti-immigrant jokes by the media to tell, but he ignores them — choosing instead to confront the stupefying effects of television, deadening people to the poverty and unemployment around them. “It is 8:45 P.M,” he says, “”And broadcasting is returning fire.” But Hitler is Hitler, not a social critic in costume, and this is made clear by another scene. Introduced early in the film as suffering from dementia, one character’s grandmother sits in her own world — until Hitler attends a dinner where she is present to celebrate the media company’s success, and the little girl within the grandmother recognizes the man who instigated the deaths of her entire family. Her sudden impassioned rebuke of him, puts those who find the ‘comedian’ amusing and useful — including the viewer — into an uncomfortable spot. Ultimately, the filmmaker begins to realize the truth, and confronts Hitler….but the ending has a twist which I don’t want to spoil.
What I can share, perhaps, is one of Hitler’s final lines. “You can’t get rid of me,” he says, staring at Berlin beneath his feet. “I’m part of you — of every one of you.” For Germans this line may simply mean that Hitler is part of their past, and no amount of denazification will remove him; no amount of rules censoring discussion will make him a nonentity. For me, though, having read The Gulag Archipelago, the line resonated strongly with me, given Solzhenitsyn’s observation that the line between good and evil divides each of our hearts. We all have the germ of a monster inside, one that might sprout if fed. Of late I’ve been investigating Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski, and their lives reinforce the lesson. Neither was an irredeemable sociopath, but they were warped by experiences which they lacked the inner strength or the outside help to overcome. There is no one righteous; not one. Less philosophically, the film’s footage of Vermes-Hitler’s interactions with real people is disturbing, but, I don’t know how representative the footage is: it could be easily edited to show more positive reactions on the whole than there were, much like late-night hosts on the idiot box do those “man in the street” sketches so that their viewers can get their jollies feeling superior to the rubes. In this case the viewers would be basking in their moral superiority rather than their command of trivia.
This is, in short, a film which is entertaining, disturbing, and thought-provoking. Like Her, I find myself re-watching it, considering its issues despite the discomfort they provoke. We will never be shed of violence or leaders who promote it, and we should be ever on our guard against supporting it — especially when we think our cause is just. Man never does more evil or mischief than when he thinks he is in the right. This is a lesson demonstrable not just by history’s wars, but our own burning streets.