In 2012, writer Timur Vermes published Look Who’s Back, perhaps Germany’s most provocative and popular novel in recent memory. Its premise? Adolf Hitler has somehow emerged in present-day Berlin, alive and goose-stepping. Mistaken for an exceptionally realistic method actor, the unfiltered dictator becomes a media sensation. Purposefully priced at €19.33 (the year Hitler took power), the novel rose to prominence as a biting satire of contemporary Germany.
Now, Look Who’s Back has made it to the silver screen. A film adaptation debuted to box office success last fall in Germany, and has just been released on Netflix for international audiences. And boy am I glad about that.
As an enthusiast for WWII history, German politics, and satire, I viewed the Look Who’s Back novel as a holy trinity of high expectations. Fortunately, it met them; I loved the book, and would recommend it wholeheartedly (it’s available in English on Amazon). Naturally, when I heard that there would be a movie adaptation, my bar for it was even higher.
With all that said, I am thoroughly impressed with Look Who’s Back the film. It’s faithful to the novel in spirit, but not in certain details — which is great. The general plot outline and character set stay consistent though, like with all movie adaptations, noticeable abridgements and modifications occur.
While having some knowledge of German politics and society (ex. what the major political parties are) makes both the novel and the film more enjoyable, the novel spends far more time on specifics like the Hartz social welfare reforms. Indeed, when the book first came out, Vermes probably intended it for a domestic audience, one steeped in vergangenheitsbewältigung — the concept of “coming to terms with the past”. Since 1945, Germany has struggled to deal with the legacy of Hitler; Holocaust remembrance remains a huge part of the school curriculum and the nation has some of the strictest anti-Nazi laws on the world (ex. no swastikas on move posters). Guilt is an integral part of the modern German psyche, and Look Who’s Back the novel offered a jolting reflection upon 50+ years of institutionalized atonement. Its message: look’s like nothing much has changed since 1933.
Naturally, the concept of history repeating itself due to inherent human folly has resonance beyond Germany. That’s why the Look Who’s Back novel received international attention and an English translation, and that’s why the Look Who’s Back movie takes on a more universal bent. Back in 2012, Germany and the EU were not yet fully embroiled in today’s massive ISIS-sparked refugee crisis. Today, nationalism, extremism, and demagoguery are boiling over not only in Europe, but also in America (where Hitler comparisons to a candidate-who-must-not-be-named abound). The film seizes fully upon this, directing its satire at targets like AfD (Alternative für Deutschland — a right-wing, German Eurosceptic party) and the anti-Islamic/immigration Pegida, neither of which existed when the book came out. By not remaining faithful to its novel source in these regards, the Look Who’s Back movie keeps its satire fresh and takes on a life of its own.
Though not immediately apparently, Look Who’s Back also incorporates candid shots of people interacting with “Hitler” (played by Oliver Masucci) a la Borat. It’s a brilliant move that adds another dimension to the story and, more importantly, provides active proof for the story’s assumptions. Both the novel and the film’s scripted portions posit how a modern-day Hitler would become a social media sensation. Cut to the candid shots, in which Chinese tourists throng “Hitler” for selfies and random passerby film him on their smartphones. After a while, the scripted and candid portions start become indistinguishable as fiction and reality become one through satire.
What’s more is how the film acknowledges and then deploys the meta-ness of its concept. Without giving too much away, we begin to see a film-within-a-film based on a book-within-a-film starring actors playing actors. If that makes absolutely no sense right now, don’t worry — just watch the movie and it’ll flow, beautifully and brilliantly.
As far as satire goes, Look Who’s Back the film at least matches, if not exceeds, its source novel. It’s one of those rare adaptations that takes full advantage of the film medium in order to add extra richness to the source story across multiple dimensions. In a renewed time of fear-mongering and vitriol, this movie is not just relevant, but necessary.
Look Who’s Back (German: Er ist wieder da)— Germany. Dialog in German. Directed by David Wnendt. First released October 2015. Running time 1hr 56min. Starring Oliver Masucci, Fabian Busch, and Katja Riemann.
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