The past week I have been reading ‘Er ist wieder da’ (‘Look Who’s Back’ in English), the novel by Timur Vermes, about the fictional reappearance of Hitler in the 21st century. I had already seen the movie when it came out in 2015, but after also reading the book I saw the movie again and I felt the need to reflect on its meaning, the awkwardness of Hitler-humor and some interesting differences between the movie and the book.
The General Idea
First a short introduction and spoiler alert. Hitler wakes up in the bushes in current day Berlin-Mitte, on the spot where the Führerbunker once stood. He is confused and tries to find out what year it is. When he sees the year 2011 on a newspaper, he passes out. After waking up, he aims to observe his surroundings and the current social structures as objectively as possible. People think he is a method actor, and he gets a spot on a satirical television show. So we have Hitler, in 2011, with the same radical ideas, and with an large audience through television. And this is where the first difference between the book and the movie comes forward.
The Hitler Experiment
The book is fiction, written by Timur Vermes and the reactions of the public to Hitlers speeches in the book are also fictional. The movie, on the other hand, is filmed in a Borat-like way, which means that the reactions of the public to Hitler walking around are actually very real. The movie can thus be seen as a sort of social experiment, in which real reactions are being provoked by a method actor pretending to be Hitler, uncovering right-wing sentiments and also how much Hitler and WWII have been historicized. Most people in the movie laugh at Hitler, want to take selfies with him, and some even agree with his political thoughts, confide in him and promise to follow him. There are only two figures in the movie, one an actress, one a man reacting on the street, that take offense to ‘Hitler’ walking around publicly.
Let’s talk about the humor, because even though this history is apparently historicized quite a bit in popular culture, turning it into humor or satire is a very tricky thing. What is very interesting in the book, is that you see Hitlers observations in the modern day through his eyes, and he contextualizes his findings with his mental framework from more than half a century ago. This is often absurd and totally anachronistic, which can cause a reader to laugh. On the other hand it shows how people can draw very different conclusions from and give different meanings to things happening in the world. The book sheds a light on the dangers of radical thought. The historical satire in the form of Hitlers reappearance in the book (and even more in the movie) is a vehicle through which modern day political sentiments, some of which quite extreme, come to the surface. People may be shocked at its outcome, but is this the fault of the satirist?
Humor or Satire?
In the book you are inside Hitlers mind, and you are with him with every observation he makes. This allows you to look at society through the eyes of someone from a different time, with extreme thoughts that he applies to the present. In the movie you are less inside his stream of thoughts. The things Hitler says in the movie and the way he acts are therefore more punch-line or even slap-stick humor. Because the movie loses the mental and historical context which you read in the book, the humor in the movie is a bit more superficial, and you have to dig a little deeper to see the satire. A historically sensitive viewer might not think the movie is funny at all, even though he or she might appreciate some of the absurdist anachronisms in the book.
Hitler and popular historical culture
In my view this book is historical fiction of the ‘what-if’ sort, which sheds a light on the ever changing relationship of people with their troubled pasts. The experiment of Hitler showing up on the streets of Germany evokes reactions that are direct indicators of a modern day historical culture, that surpasses national boundaries. If so many people are shocked that so many people are okay with Hitler walking around in Germany, and even agree that ‘it wasn’t all bad’, that is proof of a strong tension in popular historical culture regarding Hitlers legacy. Showing this tension, even through satire, is a good thing. But laughing about it, is another story.
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