It’s August 2011 and, on a patch of wasteland somewhere in Berlin, a disoriented Adolf Hitler is just waking up, dressed in full uniform and with his last memories being of sitting with Eva Braun in the Führerbunker and showing her his gun. He also has an odd headache in his temple. As the back cover of Look Who’s Back says, “He’s back…and he’s Führious.”
Look Who’s Back was a surprise bestseller for author Timur Vermes in Germany, selling 1.5 million copies. It’s a satire on the media, both print and screen, and on contemporary German politics (although the point of the satire could be equally applied to many Western democracies).
As Hitler emerges from his 65 years or so of hibernation, he is, not unnaturally, assumed to be a Hitler impersonator and, owing to the fact that he is, actually, the real McCoy, a brilliant impersonator at that. He quickly attracts the attention of the producers of a sketch show presented by a Turkish immigrant and is given a guest slot. His rants, perceived to be witty commentary on modern Germany, are an instant hit and his popularity goes from strength to strength, although his insistence on remaining in character causes some unease and frustration.
Much of the comedy derives from the belief of the TV executives that Hitler’s rants about immigrants, modern Germany and his plans for the future are actually clever skewerings of those who actually do think that way. One highly effective episode has Hitler doorstepping the HQ of a German far-right political party and, by raging at the spotty youth who works there and its corpulent and ineffectual leader, unintentionally ridiculing it. His bosses at the TV company are delighted both at his success and at the controversy he stirs up, including some who believe he is a Jewish comedian, sending Hitler up with his bizarre perorations, in which he declaims with Messianic fervour before concluding on a truly banal note.
The venality and ingratiating nature of contemporary politicians also come in for some attention from the author. Following a hilarious TV interview with a leading Green politician, Hitler is amused (but not surprised) to find himself being wooed by all the major German parties. His views may be distasteful but he is popular after all.
One of the issues with Look Who’s Back is the slightly scattergun approach to its satirical targets. Is Mr Vermes going after the media (there is a suitably bilious portrayal of Bild, the influential tabloid), the politicians, the German far-right, Hitler himself or modern German society? It’s a little unfocused and, I believe, suffers as a result. At times, it’s unclear who we’re supposed to be laughing at.
This problem is most acute in the depiction of Hitler himself. Far from a monster, he comes across as a curmudgeonly and slightly loopy grandfather type, bemused by the new Germany and bewildered by the sight of women clearing up after their dogs with plastic bags and teenagers glued to their phones. In particular, Vermes struggles with the elephant in the room in any portrayal of Hitler - the Holocaust. He attempts to deal with this by creating a running motif of an exchange between the TV people and Hitler, using the phrase, “The Jews are no laughing matter.” In the eyes of the TV people, this indicates that you shouldn’t joke about the Holocaust. Hitler takes it to mean that the Jews are a serious problem.
Other than this, though, the author makes as few references to Hitler’s anti-Semitism as he feels he can get away with, thereby reducing further the evil in his character and implicitly emphasising his love of animals and the care he shows his assistants. This underplaying of the Holocaust is uncomfortably shown in an episode where Hitler’s secretary resigns, having been told by her grandmother of how most of her family died in the camps. On hearing this, Hitler goes to visit the old lady where, it appears, all it takes to make her change her mind about him are a few compliments.
Overall, Look Who’s Back is an intriguing but patchy satire. I can see why it would have been so popular and controversial in Germany where there are laws on the use of Nazi symbols and the way in which the Nazis and the Holocaust are portrayed but, to this British reader, it wasn’t shocking. Although there are some very funny patches, the plot never really develops much beyond a series of confrontations between Hitler and people who believe he’s an impersonator and the ending is anti-climactic, trailing off limply. In summary, it was a little bit bland and a bit frustrating.
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