Making Hitler an object of fun is no new idea, as Chaplin’s famous The Great Dictator took pointed shots at the man while he was still alive, and 1967 saw the aforementioned Mel Brooks’ seminal The Producers, which not only gave Hitler a daft platform but an impressive singing voice. The glorious Monty Python team wrote and performed a sketch where Hitler hides behind the pseudonym Mr Hilter, and comedian Richard Herring performed a set about his attempts to reclaim the iconic moustache for the people. Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film Downfall showed Hitler’s ranting amidst the collapse of his regime and the waning of his influence, winning acclaim for its sobering and realistic portrayal – but it wasn’t until an army of remixing pranksters on Youtube borrowed it that it gained a wider audience. Thanks to a simple substitution of subtitles, Hitler now appeared to be yelling about trivial and petty things like being banned from his Xbox account, failing to find Wally or bemoaning the break-up of bands like Oasis. So Look Who’s Back treads a familiar path, but with a new perspective – for this is one of the first high-profile satires of Hitler by a German author. The rarity of this, and its perceived provocative nature pushed it to the top spot on Germany’s charts for a considerable amount of time.
Look Who’s Back imagines a scenario where Hitler wakes up in a wasteland in 2011, with only a vague memory of his own death. At first he is bemused by the Germany he rediscovers, but soon finds things he can appreciate among the ideas he finds “objectionable.” Thinking he’s a hilarious method-acting comedian, a local TV station decides to put him on the air, seeing his offensive rants as ironic shtick. Soon he is making his way up the food chain and gathering influence, getting closer to the government he so wants to infiltrate.
It’s often very funny, as Hitler interacts with both sides of the political spectrum and they see him in very different ways. There is an element of miscommunication in conversations with his agent, as her insistence that “the Jews are no laughing matter” is taken as a grave affirmation of his beliefs. Liberals think it’s all in poor taste, while Neo-Nazi’s want to beat him up for supposedly insulting their Führer. Written in a frank first-person format, it almost feels like a bizarre-world sequel to Mein Kampf, filled with internal discussions and rambling thoughts. It’s also packed with one-liners of all sorts, from time-travelling observational humour to more risky Holocaust quips.
That said, you do get the feeling when reading Look Who’s Back that Vermes took a great deal of effort to reign himself in when writing it, and this probably comes from his German sense of restraint. Making light of Hitler is a difficult and fraught thing in a country painfully aware of its past, where Nazi symbols are banned, and salutes are a punishable offence. Had a British (or any other nationality than German) author tackled this theme, it would have been likely to generate offense on all fronts like 2014’s The Zone of Interestby Martin Amis. His dark concentration-camp novel was too “frivolous” and failed to find a publisher in Germany. This is a softened and more accessible form of satire.
It’s not entirely without bite though, and it has more on its mind than simply shocking the literary world. Like Jerzy Kosinski’s brilliant Being There (later a film starring Peter Sellers), Look Who’s Back works like a cautionary tale for our media-drenched world.Being There almost operates as an anti-Forrest Gump, with that film’s cheery and worry-free atmosphere flipped on its head, warning against people with empty thoughts and meaningless catchphrases. In that novel, a lowly gardener called Chase wanders his way into political power and influence as his simple gardening tips are seen as being clever metaphors on big issues like the economy. He has no knowledge of any of the topics people think he holds forth on, but this doesn’t stop people putting him on a pedestal. Hitler ascends to the top in much the same way in Look Who’s Back. People hear what he is saying but misinterpret the message. They laugh at him, and in doing so don’t notice the sharp teeth beneath his daft exterior. It feels peculiarly relevant to England’s current situation in particular, as our increasingly desperate media turns to polarising figures that make for easy news and fresh clickbait in an effort to lasso drifting consumers away from the many branching avenues the internet provides. But presenting certain far-right politicians as amusing beer-swilling caricatures can help to give them a platform for their hate speech. Comedians in fast cars make “ironic” jokes about race, sexuality and such forth and get passes because they were only “mucking about.” This makes the central idea of the novel such a worrying and conceivable situation.
All in all, this is an amusing novel with a clever conceit at its core. It’s edgy but not too offensive, funny but not too insensitive. There are lines in here that you won’t be able to stop yourself laughing at, and some you’ll feel a little bad about afterwards. Just dig in and Goebbel it up.