Hitler is back. This is the premise, plot, and entirety of Look Who’s Back. There is essentially nothing else — certainly no explanation of why or how the actual Adolf came to awaken in a playground in modern-day Berlin, certainly no plot wherein he has to find his way back to the ’40s or continues time traveling and attempting to conquer Future Berlin after Future Berlin. He’s just back.
This, of course, is elementally terrifying. The man is known worldwide as the incarnation of Evil, as a man intent on power and privilege, as not a man at all. The Return of Hitler is actually not an uncommon film narrative, admittedly not usually depicting the literal return of the human being but his figurative return in one form or another. American History X and any other neo-Nazi-led drama inexorably deals with the resurgence of Hitler’s ideals; it’s not just drama for the sake of drama, either, as documentaries like Skokie: Invaded But Not Conquered prove. The subject of that film is a guy named Frank Collin, but he’s really a thinly-veiled pipsqueak version of Hitler himself. These unfortunate reincarnations are very real, and they are very dangerous, and they are very scary.
Is Look Who’s Back scary? Sure, in a way, but it’s not a drama. Look Who’s Back, somehow, against everything you expect or want or need from this kind of a movie, is a comedy. And it’s a funny comedy, not a cheap one, smart and bold and cringeworthy for all the right reasons. As New York Times book reviewer Janet Maslin said of the novel on which the film is based, “There’d be no need to discuss the acceptability of laughter if Look Who’s Back weren’t desperately funny.” It is, though, and so after you wipe the tears of laughter out of your eyes you’re forced to ask yourself whether doing so makes you sick, or racist, or evil, or inhuman.
We’ll pause on that question for the moment, partly to orient ourselves in the context of the film and partly to cower in fear at the distinct possibility that the answer to that question is yes. As a satirical novel, Look Who’s Back won praise for the examination of the modern society and the searing commentary on how that society willfully, voraciously receives new idols. At times the cultural reaction to this Hitler — often presumed by the public to be an uncanny impersonator rather than the genuine article — is Birdmanesque with regards to the speed and ferocity of public media consumption. The reaction is hardly ever “this is wrong to be impersonating Hitler”; instead, it’s a feeding frenzy focused on how good this guy is at pretending to be Adolf. He’s so passionate, people say, so inspiring. We laugh because we know exactly where this road leads, and we also kind of choke on that laugh because, well, yeah: we know exactly where this road leads.
The novel is fantastic, and yet the modern world’s refusal to take Hitler at face value is an even more striking theme of the film. Structurally, Look Who’s Back pushes the limits of The Uncomfortable by seamlessly blending scripted scenes with off-the-cuff improvisation, Hitler approaching people on the street as the film captures their reactions. And more often than not the reaction of these unsuspecting Germans is the scariest part of the film. It’s concerning enough when people gleefully take selfies with Hitler and high-five him as if he just won the pennant; it’s far more disconcerting when people openly display sympathy of the ideals of National Socialism. Look Who’s Back blends the frank mockumentary style of Borat, complete with real-life interactions with people too strange to be fictitious, with the dark and unflinching treatment of subject matter of The Act of Killing or The Look of Silence. It’s at its best when you have no idea whether the ridiculous scene you’re watching is scripted or, somehow, true.
And what a performance from Oliver Masucci. To handle the role of Hitler is inherently tough, but to do it successfully in a film like Look Who’s Back is downright masterful. Masucci navigates both the scripted scenes and the street-level ambushes with aplomb, a man convincingly out of time and yet known instantly to everyone he passes. To be dressed as the figure singlehandedly responsible for the most terrible human atrocities of the modern age, to draw laughs from that figure, to maintain his composure in the face of the shocking responses to his presence — Masucci, already an accomplished actor, is one to watch after Look Who’s Back.
Mockumentary-style bits aside, the script (ahem, “script”) is full of brilliant quips and turns of phrase from the source novel. Hitler tears up as he encounters Wikipedia for the first time, noting how proud he is that German ingenuity resulted in this aptly-named “Vikipedia”; Youtube, which he assumes at first to be “U-Tube”, is met with a similarly moved response. Conversely, Hitler is aghast at the low quality of television programming, regularly decrying the stupidity of reality TV and in particular the vapidity and prevalence of cooking shows. What good is a cooking show? Why do we need so many of them? On this last point alone, I am in agreement with Hitler.
Does cracking up at Look Who’s Back make you a bad person? Thankfully there’s nothing in my Motion State contract that forces me to provide an answer there, though doubtless some would say yes, of course while others would say not at all. Also doubtless, though, is the importance of a film like Back, which one may automatically assume to be in poor taste or the cinematic equivalent of a cheap shot. The reverse is true. In much the way that a great war satire bites through the absurdity of the subject without demeaning it or ignoring its consequence on the soul, Look Who’s Back takes a new approach to one of the most infamous figures in history. That approach isn’t meant to be a comfy ride, but the destination turns out to be simultaneously genuinely worrying and utterly ridiculous.