Germans used to be good at being serious, yet they struggled to be funny, at least in a fashion appreciated by anyone other than themselves. This was particularly true of the way they faced the darkest chapters of their past.
The only way most Germans managed to use humour to deal with living under tyranny was through parody. Germans loved to imagine that Göring wore his medals in the bath or that Hitler’s limp Nazi salute made him look like a waiter carrying a tray. Jokes of this kind might have only been mildly funny, as were the jokes told about Ulbricht and Honecker under communism; but it’s still easy to feel sympathy for the people who told them.
By presenting their leaders as a bit stupid and the common man as clever, such jokes provided a way to cope with life under authoritarianism. Belittling people in power made the jokers’ existence slightly more tolerable. However, German society’s inability to pivot away from this kind of parody turned humour relating to the Third Reich and the GDR ever more stale; they couldn’t find different, funnier forms of humour when dealing with the Nazi and communist past.
The 2011 publication of Look Who’s Back by German writer Timur Vermes was therefore both welcome and exciting. The book has Adolf Hitler come back to life, Sleeping Beauty-like, in contemporary Berlin. Vermes’ phenomenally successful account of how Hitler uses a 1940s’ knowledge base to make sense of the 2010s and how he eventually turns into a You-Tube and Reality TV star is both funny and witty. By presenting an often-clever Hitler, while satirising the responses to him by ordinary Germans, it transgressed the norms of Hitler humour. Hitler was no longer a man without talents. Ordinary Germans ceased to be lionised.
It was little surprise that Vermes’ book, a bestseller translated into forty-one languages, was soon adapted for the big screen. However, rather than faithfully adapting the storyline of the book, about half of the film adaptation features unstaged encounters between an actor dressed up as Hitler and ordinary Germans. That approach, with strong echoes of Sacha Baron Cohen’s early Borat clips, would have worked brilliantly had it not tried to to achieve more than a Borat approach can deliver. Like some of Sacha Baron Cohen’s programmes, the film hilariously exposes the uneasiness and often inappropriateness with which people respond to sensitive issues. It exposes a nation that is proud of how critically it deals with its past, and proud of being unable to deal with Hitler. In that sense, both the film and the book have something politically worthwhile to say.
Yet where the film, and even more so the public discourse surrounding the film and the book, fail is in their very German attempt to be high-minded and deadly serious at the same time as being funny. Neither the book’s author nor the film’s director are content to limit themselves to satirising how Germans deal with their past. They also want to demonstrate how Hitler would be able to flourish in the Germany of today. The film’s director, David Wnendt, explained that the idea behind the film ‘was to find out how people react to Hitler … and to ask does he have a chance nowadays.’ Wnendt believes, in all seriousness, that his filmed encounters between someone dressed up as Hitler and people on the streets of contemporary Germany prove that Hitler would indeed have a chance. This is just absurd.
And it is in the absurdness with which many Germans deal with Hitler in the twenty-first century that we can encounter a rich variety of unintentional comedy. It is difficult not to smile when listening to the sincere concern of a leading German historian that Germans may again start to consider Hitler as ‘a historical figure of the highest significance’. The same is true of the recent decision of the tourist marketing company ‘Visit Berlin’ to throw out 250,000 copies of their new tourist map of the German capital, after its boss was concerned that ‘Hitler’ was printed in an inappropriately large font size in an advertisement for the ‘Hitler – how could it happen?’ exhibition in the Berlin Story Bunker. Maybe it is time that Germans learned once again how to be good at being serious.
Reviewed by Thomas Weber
LOOK WHO’S BACK
Written by Timur Vermes
Translated by Jamie Bulloch
Published by Maclehoes Press (2014)
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Thomas Weber is an historian and writer. Born in Westphalia, Germany, he studied in Oxford and is now Professor of History and International Affairs at the University of Aberdeen.