Elvis Meets Hitler
For about the last five days I could hardly work. I could hardly sleep. All day long, I walked around in a daze. On the outside I seemed withdrawn and tense; on the inside I was in fighting a grueling, drawn-out battle for my very life with Elvis.
Not your Elvis, my Elvis. Elvis is my Own Personal Inner Swine-Dog. An Inner Swine-Dog is a quaint but forceful German mythological creature that lives within you and has as its main goal in live to stop you from doing What Is Right. It is the Nemesis of your conscience. Everyone has a conscience; only the Germans have an anti-conscience.
I am normally on very good terms with Elvis, mainly because I let him do whatever the hell he feels like doing. That makes for peace in the family and, I believe, a long life. But last week was different.
It all started when I was asked to write a review of the new movie by Dany Levy. It's a comedy about Hitler called "Mein Fuehrer," starring the popular stand-up comedian Helge Schneider as Hitler and the terse, precise dramatic actor Ulrich Mühe as Hitler's nemesis, the Jewish acting coach Adolf Grünbaum.
It's a well-made movie, a satiric fantasy about a Jew (Grünbaum) teaching Hitler how to be Hitler. More importantly, it's politically right on the money.
As Germany gets further and further away from the Third Reich and more and more involved in the goings-on of the Western World – not only economically, but politically as well (Fall of the Berlin Wall as major world event, the new German Pope, a modern female Chancellor, and the fact that Germany was at the forefront of the prestigious moral resistance to the Iraq war), Germans feel the need to put the past behind them – and not only the past, but the burden of feeling bad about the past: Constantly thinking about it, making apologies about it to themselves, thinking about their responsibility, feeling guilty for something that this generation never did.
This movie is an important major sign that Germany is moving on: At last, Germany can laugh about Hitler instead of getting all flustered and guilty-feeling whenever his name comes up. If Germans can go into this film and come out laughing, they will think to themselves: See? It's over. We've overcome the past.
That's good. I think it's time they overcome the past. And a little voice inside me said: "Write a good review."
Then I heard the other little voice inside me, saying: "Are you kidding? It's crappy movie. It's not funny. Did you laugh? No. Not once. Did anything happen you didn't expect, anything that made you smile, jump in your seat, squirm, anything? No. It's crap, write a bad review."
That other little voice had a point. It's not a funny movie. It's bland, boring, avoids all the good gags, not to mention controversy. In fact, I had the feeling Levy, who also wrote it, wasn't really interested in comedy. He was interested in making a statement about Hitler. But what is he going to say what's not been said by better thinkers?
The opening joke is narration: The narrator Adolf Grünbaum describes Hitler as a man who failed at painting and so he joined the Nazis, meaning that the Nazis was a collection of failures. Which is probably true, but for "Hitler became Hitler because he failed at everything else" to be funny, it would have to be in some way insightful or surprising or new. We've known he was a failed artist and a failed human being for about 60 years. It's not news.
"It's not news" describes most of the points Levy makes in the film: Hitler had a bad relationship to his father. Hitler had a small penis. At times, it feels like he's trying to poke gentle fun at the dictator. To show a little disrespect. To nudge him just all little bit from his pedestal. To get us to look at him in a slightly different, less reverent light.
Am I the only one who thinks that's a little weird? Maybe that's the problem behind all this "Is it possible to laugh at Hitler?" crap: Someone should tell the Germans that Hitler hans't had a pedestal to stand on for over half a century now.
"But that's exactly what they're trying to do," said the first voice. "German guilt is so strong it's become a kind of perverse respect. They want to start laughing at Hitler so they can stop respecting him. This is about Germans shaking off their past. Give them that much."
That made sense. I was torn. For days I sluffed around listening into both little voices duke it out.
In the meantime, all the German newspapers started getting into the act. There was hardly an article that didn’t address, in a very important-sounding fashion, the important question: "Is it possible to laugh about Hitler?" have you ever heard such a stupid question? Where have these guys been the last 60 years? Everyone laughs about Hitler except maybe Germany's cultural establishment, who wouldn';t have anything to write about otherwise. In the outside world people have been laughing about Hitler for, well, 60 years. It's not just Chaplin, Lubitsch and Roberto Benigni. Not only in the outside world. Even today, Germans are laughing about Hitler. Take a look in the Internet. Here are a couple of links that easily run circles around "Mein Fueherer" (in German):
Then I realized: Wait a minute. Levy is not a politician, he's a filmmaker. This is 2007. The Brits just made "The Office" and "Borat." The Americans have making "The Shield" and other dramas that are anything but politically correct. And what about the Germans? They're still off in a corner somewhere discussing whether comedies should be funny or not.
Suddenly I was really mad. Germany is one of the most intelligent and modern countries in the world. It's a country I happen to like and admire. But here they are acting like idiots and no one has the guts to tell them: Hey, wake up, you're acting like idiots.
When Germans make cars, they put their hearts and souls into it. When they make movies, they are constantly looking over their shoulders to see if anyone could possibly disapprove and in the end they produce bland, meaningless stuff designed to earn the approval of cultural politicians who are also constantly looking over their shoulders for fear that someone might disapprove.
That's what makes me mad about "Mein Führer" – no one is saying: "This is a movie, not politics, and it’s a bad movie and no one is doing anyone a favor with it."
I sat down and trashed the movie (the review appears today in "The Hollywood Reporter" if I am not mistaken). I had won the fight. For once in my life, I had overcome Elvis.