Movies about Hitler and the Holocaust tend to come in two stripes. There are those films (like Downfall and Schindler’s List) that attempt to tackle the man and the consequences of his actions straight-ahead, striking the darkly tragic and sometimes weepy tone that comes the closest to being able to hold up such weighty material. And, there films like The Great Dictator and The Producers, which lace into the absurd notions associated with Hitlerism for comedic effect.
Judging from the promotional copy on the recently released DVD, First Run Features would very much like you to believe that Dani Levy’s My Fuhrer fits squarely in the latter category. The good news is, though, First Run compares their release to the comedies solely as a marketing technique. In reality, Levy’s film is less broad and, for this era, more intelligent than a new Hitler spoof picture could be. While that type of movie may still work as satire in Germany, it’s unlikely it would resonate internationally.
After South Park, Family Guy, and countless others over the last two decades have offered dozens and dozens of jaw-droppers about race hate, are American and British audiences still up for more Nazi-shock humor? A full-length feature film about Hitler that relies on silliness would have a hard time packing a punch.
Not that My Fuhrer is above the same type of jokes found in traditional lampoons — the bit with round-robins of “Seig Heil” in rooms crowded with Nazis gets old pretty quickly — but the movie is driven by mostly by its story, not by slapstick. Levy wants his effort to be taken seriously. Schindler’s List seriously? Well, no.
In a written statement from Levy included as an extra on the DVD, the director confesses that he “was one of the orthodox critics who stood up against” the filming of Schindler’s List and believes a filmic recreation “of that misery… [is] a delusional and grandiose lie.” He adds that Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful opened his eyes to the power of the use of fable to get to the truth of the Holocaust, and he nods to The Great Dictator.
My Fuhrer, though, isn’t exactly a fable, either. Although nice sets, gorgeous matte paintings, and a few narrative devices like voiceover and flashback gesture toward fantastical storytelling, the movie is simply historical fiction. These explanatory comparisons on the DVD box and in the director’s statement, even the inclusion in the movie of silly gags, are almost acts of necessity: a film that tells a story of a Jew in the Third Reich without aspiring to expose horrors of the era or else making an all-out absurd joke of the whole thing is a rare bird indeed.
Using the same framing device he used in his 2005 international hit Go For Zucker, Levy begins his film with a black-and-white scene in which Adolf Grunbaum (Ulrich Muhe), a Jew, hides under a platform on which Hitler speaks to an audience of hundreds. It’s New Year’s Day of 1945, and Grunbaum’s voiceover narration expresses wonder at where he is now compared to where he was just a week ago. With that, Levy cuts back, not to return to the platform again until the film’s climax in the closing minutes.
So, where was Grunbaum just a week ago? Sachsenhausen, until Dr. Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), in need of a Jewish actor for his scheme to revive the dying regime, summoned him to Berlin. There, he’s told, Hitler needs an acting teacher to prepare the Fuhrer for an upcoming speech. Goebbels explains that Hitler’s lost the fire in his belly, that his heart needs rekindling, and “No one can do it better than a world-renown Jewish actor.”
Grunbaum agrees to coach Hitler (Helge Schneider) so long as his wife and children are also freed from their camp and can stay with him in Berlin. As the lessons begin, we get a few more of the off-the-wall jokes, mostly at the expense of Hitler. These are, though not incredibly bold or intelligent, amusing, and they dance the experience away from the kind of melodrama that would sap the movie of its originality. Still, one has to wonder if giggles about the Fuhrer’s penis size, scenes in which he’s briefly humped by a dog, and clever prop-based allusions to famous scenes in The Great Dictator don’t detract from Grunbaum’s dilemma.
While he wrestles with the decision to try to kill Hitler and struggles to cope with guilt — fed by his wife and oldest son — over what’s happening to other Jews, Grunbaum discovers some vague likeness of humanity in the man with whom he’s spending his days working. The film’s plot takes compelling turns and keeps viewers interested as Goebbels‘ hidden plan is revealed and Hitler’s distrust of everybody except Grunbaum grows.
Along with providing enough zaniness to remove Levy’s obligation to look at the war through maudlin glasses, the jokes mask some implausible motives and prevent viewers from over-thinking the simple story. The director’s chosen to walk a stylistic tightrope, and the final product is more an interesting case than it is a good film, but the picture moves along and is fairly satisfying.
The DVD provides a photo gallery (mostly composed of stills from the film), Levy’s statement, the transcript of a two-question interview with Muhe, and several trailers.