Certain associations will always spring to mind when discussing any country. For Germany the most popular hits will be efficiency, success with their national football team, sausages, and two World Wars. The latter ultimately brings up thoughts of the Nazis and Adolf Hitler. What doesn’t easily spring to mind is their aptitude for humour. That didn’t stop author Timur Vermes attempting to bring the two together in the 2012 novel Look Who’s Back.
It’s a brave concept, making one of the most diabolical men in history the protagonist of a satirical comedy. Vermes makes it more challenging for himself by setting the story in the modern day. So from the start he is left with difficult subject matter placed in a series of minefields, none more so than the genre itself.
All literature is subjective, comedy more divisive than most. Taking this into account some leeway can be afforded to Vermes. However, accepting it might not be a laugh a minute doesn’t disguise a failed attempt at humour or intelligent derision.
The idea of disarming the monster is nothing new in art or popular culture. In its cheapest form we all laughed at Saddam Hussein in Hot Shots! Part Deux. Vermes isn’t going for the slapstick, he wants a subtle disassembling of Hitler and his beliefs. Instead he creates a character ignorant to the reality of his situation or the true perception of those around him.
We go from Führer to Alan Partridge within seconds, and not in a good way.
Hitler starts the story waking in modern day 2014. His mind has no knowledge of world events following his death in 1945. Still dressed in full Nazi uniform he wanders the streets trying to make sense of his situation. He comes across a newspaper stand and befriends the owner. This chance meeting gives him and abode and serves as a catalyst for his acceptance of the year and time he finds himself.
Despite slowly becoming aware of the new world situation, he continues to reflect and assume that many of the current ways of life are because of Nazi influence. This is an easy way to highlight the ignorance of extreme views and paint Hitler as single-minded. But after an initial period of settling in, it becomes a distraction. Are we supposed to believe a man that must have had intelligence in order to initiate his evil intentions is suddenly so naïve?
As the story unfolds he is seen as a comedic method actor. His rants are seen as a clever way to belittle views that should never been aired seriously. This makes members of extreme movements assume he is a sympathiser and they send him warnings.
When anyone in the world of Vermes’ novel grows a brain and questions what he really stands for, they are removed. Like a national newspaper that ends up being sued by Hitler’s representatives and ends up singing his praises. Again, a nod to manipulation, but how those closest to Hitler fail to see his behaviour goes beyond the talent of an immersed method actor is questionable.
Some conversations take place that rely on the observer’s understanding that Hitler and those he is in dialogue with are coming from two different places. Some of these can be humorous, sadly they wear thin. A clever play on words only works so many times before the characters are reduced to mindless mush.
There is also an effort to show how Hitler won people over with a certain degree of charisma. Even that message fails when you consider in this version he goes from YouTube to TV star. Unless Vermes is trying to say the modern media is as evil as the Nazi war machine.
The actual translation of the German title is, He is Back. Thankfully for mankind, Hitler is dead and will remain so. Unless poorly implemented comedy is your thing, keep him that way and avoid this attempt at resurrection by ridicule.