Friday, March 26, 2010


The title of Dani Levy's film refers to Adolf Hitler, of course, but in true mismatched buddy movie fashion it also comes to refer to Hitler's mismatched buddy. The Nazi leader uses the term, not without irony, in homage to Adolf Israel Gruenbaum, his acting instructor, as he goes to make a speech he hopes will turn the tide of World War II back in his favor. It's January 1945, but as 1944 was dying Hitler had lost his gift, his spark, his mojo. He hadn't fully recovered from the Valkyrie assassination plot, though he had been smart enough that same year to send a double to attend the ill-fated premier of Nation's Pride, not being a fan of the director. But as Germany's military fortunes waned, the Leader grew demoralized. He wasn't out there whipping the Volk into their customary frenzy. It fell to Dr. Josef Goebbels, the propaganda minister, to take drastic action to kickstart his master and, through him, the war effort. He recruited Gruenbaum, one of Germany's leading actors and acting teachers, from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. His choice scandalizes Goebbels's colleagues in the Nazi leadership, and perplexes Hitler himself at first, but the Reichsminister has a crucial insight: a Jewish instructor will evoke something crucial from the Fuehrer that his Aryan peers probably couldn't: hatred.

This is the set up for a film that Levy claims was inspired more by Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful than by Mel Brooks's The Producers. Nevertheless, it gets pitched to American audiences as a German counterpart to Brooks's masterpiece. It's not quite that. Levy's comedy is different, built more around the essential absurdity of the situation than the collisions of clowns. The Jewish characters (i.e. Gruenbaum's family) are played straight, unless you find Gruenbaum's acting exercises amusing. Gruenbaum endures real suffering. While Goebbels indulges him, other Nazis beat him up regularly, and Goebbels himself orders the Gruenbaums back to Sachsenhausen when the actor makes too many demands, only to be countermanded by Hitler, who enjoys the opportunity to open up emotionally and remember his past under the professor's instruction. Hitler (Helge Schneider) is really the only clownish figure in the picture, unless you count a Himmler who arrives in Berlin worse for battle, with his arm in a brace locked in the Hitler salute. Strangely, though, Schneider's performance is meant to illustrate a serious thesis Levy has about Hitler. The director buys into the notion that Hitler picked on those weaker than he because he was consistently abused as a child by his father. This approach renders Hitler a pathetic figure in the contemptible sense of the word, but also a figure of pathos as the film reveals how completely dysfunctional (he can't get it up for Eva Braun) and lonely he is. Despite his prejudices, Hitler forms emotional bonds with Gruenbaum, and to an extent with his family, out of sheer neediness. But he remains a bigoted idiot and, so the film suggests, needs to stay that way.

"And in this scene, Herr Hitler, you face the final guardian, Kareem Abdul Jabbar. He is very tall."
Ulrich Muhe and a track-suited Helge Schneider in
Mein Fuehrer.

Gruenbaum is one of the last performances of Ulrich Muhe, who the world knows as the star of one of the late decade's great films, The Lives of Others. Regrettably, he doesn't really have much to do here because of Levy's refusal to render his hero comical. There are some nice moments of physical comedy, as when Gruenbaum accidentally KOs a taunting Hitler who challenges him to box, and a nicely timed sequence in which the actor closes in to kill the Fuehrer with a gold bar as Nazi officials watch through a two-way mirror in horror (and Goebbels disregards the whole scene) until Hitler makes an emotional breakthrough that stays Gruenbaum's hand. There are also framing scenes that hint that Gruenbaum is telling a bit of a tall tale (the film's subtitle translates as "the really truest truth about Adolf Hitler"), but Muhe's performance and the film itself are inevitably handicapped by an understandable reluctance to make much fun of or with a character in constant peril of death in a gas chamber.

While making a Hitler comedy is still going to look blasphemous to many people, Levy's reluctance to be very outrageous beyond the original transgression puts Mein Fuehrer out of contention with The Producers, but Mel Brooks himself might stop short at the camp gate, after all. In the end, however, Levy has an arguably funny point to make about Hitler's role in Germany's defeat, but before I elaborate on the other side of the screen cap, I'll warn you of spoilers in case you plan to see the film sometime.

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Above, Gruenbaum gets Hitler to play a dog most convincingly. Below, Hitler threatens to develop a doglike devotion to his teacher.

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When Goebbels says he needs a Jew to stoke Hitler's hatred, he's being disingenuous. He really needs a Jew to restoke Germany's hatred. As he confides to Himmler, Goebbels's true plan is to kill Hitler by exploding a bomb underneath the podium during the big New Year's speech. Gruenbaum is supposed to be the fall guy, reigniting German anti-semitism along with the war effort. Albert Speer overhears part of this conversation and rushes to Hitler to denounce Gruenbaum. Hitler is incredulous and seems to forget about the whole affair, but we can assume that our hero's deduced what's really up.

Things get more complicated for the Fuehrer and his fuehrer when Hitler suddenly loses his voice in the middle of an angry scolding of a barber who lops off half his moustache. While another man's moustache can be requisitioned in a pinch, Hitler's vocal situation proves hopeless. Anticipating Singing in the Rain, however, Hitler has a solution: Gruenbaum can be placed beneath the podium and impersonate him while the Leader himself mouths the words of his speech. At gunpoint, Gruenbaum is compelled to read Hitler's banalities and bigotries until he can't stands no more. He starts improvising, making Hitler denounce himself as an impotent bedwetter, until he's shot down. Hitler flees the scene in dismay moments before Goebbels's bomb goes off.

Why did Gruenbaum throw his life away? In simplest plot terms, he has nothing to lose now that the Nazis have agreed to his final request and freed his wife and children. With them presumably safely away, he can now show the courage to say what he really thinks of Hitler, at whatever cost to himself. But it's also possible to believe that Gruenbaum sacrifices himself in order to save Hitler's life, in an ironic reversal of the moral pressure he's felt throughout the picture to kill him. This may be simply because he's come to pity his pupil despite his evil career. It may also be because he's intuited what Goebbels believes: that Hitler is now only useful to the war effort as a dead victim -- that Germany's only chance to pull victory from the jaws of defeat will come if Hitler dies. Since Hitler himself tells Gruenbaum that he didn't come up with the Final Solution all by himself, our hero most likely understands that the war is bigger than Hitler alone, and that the best way to ensure that Germany loses and the Shoah ceases as soon as possible is to keep Hitler in power. The irony of that realization, if you think about it, may be the most amusing thing in Levy's erratic little experiment in historical irreverence.

No subtitles on this German trailer uploaded by muhmachtdiemama, but you should get the idea anyway.

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