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Adolf on the couch

Harald Martenstein on the comic, realistic and therefore conflicted depiction of Hitler in Dani Levy's "Mein Führer"

he original comedy scene consists of a man and a banana peel. But if we happen to know that man very well, if we know that he is living through tough times, if we hear that he had to be hospitalised because of what happened with the banana peel, a terrible accident, then our amusement turns to pity. Comedies, to a certain extent, have to be merciless.

Director Dani Levy has made a film about Adolf Hitler. Levy grew up in Switzerland as a Jew, a fact that, when it comes to Adolf Hitler, probably should not go unmentioned for more than ten lines. Before this film, Levy made "Alles auf Zucker!" which is about being Jewish in contemporary Germany.

Dani Levy (Copyright Joachim Gern)
Dani Levy (Copyright Joachim Gern)

The comedy is called "Mein Führer. Die wirklich wahrste Wahrheit über Adolf Hitler" (the truly truest truth about Adolf Hitler). The Führer is played by the comedian Helge Schneider. But it could just as well be Harald Schmidt, Fritz Wepper or even Sabine Christiansen, because Schneider is hidden behind a thick mask and fake nose. To the extent that one can say this, Helge Schneider plays Hitler very well, but of course not as well as Bruno Ganz in "The Downfall" or Armin Müller-Stahl. It used to be that every ageing, well-known actor wanted to play Lear, now it seems to be Hitler.

In "Mein Führer" we see Hitler at the end of 1944, suffering from depression. Goebbels is insisting that he make one more great speech to mobilise the Volk. To get Hitler ready for public speaking again, Goebbels sends for his former acting teacher, a Jew (Ulrich Mühe), who is in a concentration camp. The teacher would in fact like to kill Hitler, but his lessons take on a dynamic of their own and in a "typically Jewish" (in Dani Levi's words) fashion, turn into psychotherapy. Hitler recalls how his father beat him, and even starts crying. In the background, Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) is cooking up a plan to overthrow the Führer. For inspiration for the script, Levy looked to Alice Miller, who in "Am Anfang war Erzeihung" (For your own good, 1980) researched the influence of Hitler's unhappy childhood on his personality. "For your own good" is not what one would call a funny book.

Horror, murder and manslaughter have always been subject matter for comedy because humour is only a method, a style which can be used to express all sorts of things. Someone who treats something with humour is not implying that this subject does not have to be taken "too seriously" (there are thousands of romantic comedies and yet one still cries when one's heart breaks). How seriously a subject is treated in a work is less a function of tone and more of the statement it ultimately makes.

On the Internet, Hitler entertainment has become a genre unto itself. One could award an annual prize for the funniest Hitler artwork. At the moment the funniest Hitler film on YouTube, beating "Der Bonker" by Walter Moers by a hair, is "Hitler Leasing." In it, film student Florian Wittman has dubbed a Hitler speech using the voice of the cabaret artist Gerhard Polt. The film has Polt worked up about being ripped off by a leasing company. And it fits Hitler's gestures perfectly.

Blondi and the Fuehrer (Helge Schneider)
Blondi and the Fuehrer (Helge Schneider)

The writer Henryk M. Broder said of "Hitler Leasing" that it probably conveys more about Hitler than your average explicitly "antifascist" film. That's probably true. The problem is that most consumers of modern media already have the feeling that they know all there is to know about Hitler. It's fair to assume that more Germans know the name of Hitler's sheepdog Blondi than the name of the current premiere of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Nobody really needs to explain that Hitler was evil. Hitler entertainment can go on the assumption that this fact is already well-known.

The Internet site provides a list of all Hitler comparisons of recent years. It has become quite standard to compare any person or thing that one wants to revile with Hitler. Here, one learns that Hugo Chavez compared the Spanish Prime Minister Aznar with Hitler or that media moghul Ted Turner finds a similarity between the competing broadcaster Fox and Hitler. Madonna, on the other hand, believes that the Aids epidemic is something like Hitler. And, you can take an astrological test in which you learn what percent of the personality of a celebrity matches that of Hitler; for Mick Jagger, for instance, it's a respectable 71 percent. Another secret tip is On this American site, one finds cats that look like Hitler, so-called Kitlers.

(Ulrich Muehe) and Hitler (Helge Schneider)
Acting teacher (Ulrich Mühe) and Hitler (Helge Schneider)

Hitler has turned into an international pop icon. This statement is not original, but it has to be articulated because when talking about Hitler entertainment, the word "taboo" keeps coming up like a reflex. In fact, there are almost no taboos left, other than the very reasonable taboo of holding Hitler in high esteem. As long as an artist doesn't celebrate Hitler, he or she can do pretty much whatever they want with him; in the last few years, ambiguous plays on the Hitler aesthetic have become popular, as in the pictures of Norbert Bisky or the music of Rammstein. Hitler und his crimes, as events of the century, are going to be the objects of entertainment for centuries to come, like Emperor Nero or Vlad Dracul the Impaler. But art is not about showing events as they "really" were, bur rather transforming them in such a way that a higher meaning or, why not, entertainment can be distilled from them.

Levy shows Hitler as a sissy. That makes him quite likeable. It's in this way that the Romanian despot Dracul became Dracula the vampire. Hitler and the Nazis have come to be among the most abstract personifications of "evil" in pop culture, sometimes even "ridiculous tartars," largely dissociated from political context. Director Steven Spielberg was one of the first to use the Nazis in an apolitical sense; in the Indiana Jones films, they are simply the nasty opponents to the heroes. A few years later, he shot the educational school film "Schindler's List." There are at least two Hitlers and two kinds of Nazis in contemporary culture; the traditional, realistic Nazi of educational television documentations and "Schindler's List" on the one hand, and the entertainment and comedy Nazi, freed of realism and pseudo-realism as he appears in the Walter Moers films or in Indiana Jones on the other. Absolute evil or a ridiculous figure.

With "Mein Führer," Dani Levy makes use of both, as they have often appeared, even in German films. German feature films often have something stiff and subsidised about them. Even with subjects less complicated than Hitler, the German film is not especially good at aesthetic novelty. For Dani Levy, Hitler should be both realistic and funny. That's the main problem with "Mein Führer": the two Hitlers, the crude comic H. and the educational film H. are constantly clashing because Levy can't decide between them. This makes the film mainly bizarre and only funny in parts.

Hitler (Helge Schneider) takes a bubble bath (Copyright Ecki Friz)
Hitler (Helge Schneider) takes a bubble bath (Copyright Ecki Friz)

Presumably, a realistic Hitler cannot be funny and vice versa. With the odd idea of putting Hitler on a serious Alice Miller therapy couch in the context of a comedy, the "Führer" becomes the nice man in the Reichskanzlei – and that really is bizarre. Hitler is the only character in the film with depth and tragedy. The viewer has to pity him. You want to take him by the arm, the guy who wipes out on the banana peel, the guy about whom you know too much.

Levy depicts Hitler as an abused child, lonely, sad, bed-wetting, impotent, abandoned by his closest colleagues and demoralised by his teacher. He distances himself from the murders, from the "many deaths" – it wasn't all his doing. At the same time cheap jokes abound, for example about Hitler spitting out his food or that while Nazis have names like "Puffke" and "Rattenhuber", the Jew has been punished with the name "Adolf". The comic element is significantly weaker than the tragedy which wafts about Hitler.

This makes "Mein Führer" a major historical event, the first mainstream film since 1945 in which Hitler comes off as a regrettable but basically nice guy. There's probably some truth to it. Everyone has something nice about them, no? The films that depict Nazis as plain beasts, nothing more, are certainly over-simplifying. But Levy's film doesn't quite strike the right tone for a discussion of the larger questions of guilt, autonomy of the individual, crime and society. And Hitler is not really the ideal exemplar of the thesis that a screwed up childhood lurks behind every crime. As a criminal, he went too far for that. Compassion has to have its limits, really.

Dani Levy can't have intended to be a Hitler-sympathiser, it happened by mistake. Sylvester Groth as Goebbels shows how the film could have been better. Groth is the star of "Mein Führer," beastly, charming, with the joviality of a predator, one whose malice is transparent yet who commands a certain respect, almost against our will, because he was a rascal but at least a major rascal.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit on January 4, 2007.
Harald Martenstein, born 1953, is an editor at the Tagespiegel and a columnist for Die Zeit.

Translation: lp, nb - let's talk european