Look Who’s Back, the latest German satirical comedy from the writer-director who unleashed Wetlands upon the world, just might be the weirdest film to hit Netflix’s streaming service since, I don’t know, Wetlands? David Wnendt’s last two features seem to be establishing a pattern where the filmmaker bravely dives head first into adapting controversial, provocative German novels for the big screen that challenge the outermost boundaries of basic human decency: one a slapstick romance about an anal fissure & the other a Borat-style farce in which Adolf Hitler clumsily navigates & eventually finds popularity in the modern world. The latter film adaptation, Look Who’s Back, mixes seemingly tame, broad comedy with fiercely biting, unforgiving political satire, a tonal whiplash that recalls the unlikely romantic comedy/vulgar gross-out mashup of Wetlands. Look Who’s Back isn’t quite as successful as the delightfully depraved film it follows, but it does help solidify Wnendt’s status as a prankster provocateur, a comedic mind very much astute in finding delight in modern human grotesqueries.
Part of what makes Look Who’s Back such an odd delight is how difficult it is to classify. The film starts with a sci-fi/fantasy premise where Adolf Hitler is mysteriously transported to modern times Germany and follows his first-person POV as he tries to make sense of concepts like selfies, television, the internet, etc. This broad, cheaply campy farce mostly functions as a Trojan horse for the film’s real bread & butter: unscripted, Borat-style street interviews where Hitler interacts with the modern public. A lot of folks treat Hitler like a joke — hugging him, posing for pictures, chirping “I love Hitler!” & honoring him with a Nazi salute — an uncomfortable gaze at toxic hipster irony & modern refusal to engage with life sincerely. These subjects recall the pitch black satirical attacks of works like The Comedy, but they’re not the darkest place the film goes. Look Who’s Back‘s main mode of political satire is in pairing Hitler with real-life, unscripted people who agree with his nationalistic, horrifically racist rhetoric when it comes to the issue of Muslim immigration. They aren’t all easily identifiable neo-Nazi skinheads, either. Think of the German equivalent of your average diehard Trump supporter and you pretty much get the picture. It takes very little effort for Hitler to push German citizens’ Islamophobic rhetoric into verbal support for eugenics & racial purity, a deeply disturbing revelation of a barely-concealed ugliness. As if that weren’t enough territory for an eerie camp comedy to cover, the back half of Look Who’s Back indulges in some weird Adaptation-type meta play where the film indicts itself and its source material for their cultural popularity in a modern media landscape it openly loathes. It’s a singularly strange work, however overstuffed, that finds a lot worth mining in its initially limiting premise.
Comedies don’t always translate well across cultural borders & language barriers and I’ll readily admit Look Who’s Back starts from a shaky place in its early farcical camp machinations. Once the film digs its talons into its not-at-all subtle political commentary, though, it can manage to be a downright harrowing glimpse at modern racism, a nightmarish terror just barely hiding under the guise of concern for “border security.” I was particularly haunted by Hitler’s post-credits tour of modern German where he thinks to himself, “I can work with this.” It’s chilling. Look Who’s Back‘s main conceit is that Hitler just sort of reappears, which initially seems like a far-fetched starting point until you realize that his rhetoric has already done the same. The film’s structure is a strange patchwork that initially mines humor from the visual comedy of a modern times Hitler (Hitler in dad jeans, Hitler in bumper cars, Hitler at the dry cleaners, Hitler bowling), then reminds its audience how dangerous the dead dictator’s very much alive ideology still is in a modern context in candid street interviews, and concludes by pointing a finger in the mirror for not taking history seriously in a meta reflection on the dangers of reducing such a fucked up cultural figure to a casual gag in the first place. Not every joke lands, especially in the early proceedings, but the way Wnendt shoehorns biting political commentary & self-lacerating attacks on ironic humor into the shape of a campy farce holds just as much shock value as the de Sade levels of sexual depravity & beyond-unsanitary pizza toppings of Wetlands. Look Who’s Back is something of a structural mess, but it’s a fascinating mess with a surprising amount to say about the current political attitude towards immigration that disgraces a vast majority of The West, America included (obviously). Wnendt uses the hacky device of a campy Hitler comedy to strike a vary particular nerve in his viewers. It evokes a strange feeling, but it’s a surprisingly potent effect considering the trash pedigree of its chosen genre context.