Mein Führer – The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler
English Title: Mein Führer – The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler
Original Title: Mein Führer – Die wirklich wahrste Wahrheit über Adolf Hitler
Country of Origin: Germany
Studio: X Filme, Arte, Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR), Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR)
Director: Dani Levy
Producer(s): Stefan Arndt
Screenplay: Dani Levy
Cinematographer: Carl-Friederich Koschnick
Editor: Peter R. Adam
Runtime: 89 minutes
On Christmas Day 1944 Professor Adolf Grünbaum (Mühe), a famous Jewish actor, is called upon to prepare a New Year’s speech for Hitler (Schneider), who is suffering from severe depression. For this purpose, Grünbaum is released from the concentration camp Sachsenhausen, just as later on his wife Elsa (Altaras) and their four children are. Grünbaum has to motivate the Nazi dictator again. Through a secret mirror, Goebbels, Speer, Himmler and Bormann (Groth, Kurt, Noethen and Kroschwald) observe every move Hitler and Grünbaum make. Physical exercise and psychoanalytical analysis are part of the treatment. Again and again, Hitler reiterates in a child-like whining manner the violent humiliations of his father. Grünbaum becomes Hitler’s tutor and repeatedly attempts to assassinate him but is kept from doing so by his pity toward him. On New Year’s Day the Jewish acting coach has to stand in for Hitler who has lost his voice because he had a severe nervous breakdown after half of his moustache was accidentally removed. Grünbaum thus becomes Hitler’s ventriloquist in that he is forced to actually make the speech while hiding under the podium where Hitler is lip-synching and gesticulating to the words. He starts addressing the nation to boost the morale in the final phase of the war. Yet, after a while, Grünbaum starts making fun of the dictator and telling the truth about the Nazi regime, at which point Grünbaum is shot.
Dani Levy’s comedy Mein Führer – The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler (2007) represents a paradigmatic shift in German post-war popular culture. Whereas Adolf Hitler to that point had generally served as an icon and personification of evil, Levy’s film highlighted the way German social attitudes to the Führer had undergone a profound change. In Mein Führer, Hitler – played by Helge Schneider – is given the right to be the subject of the narrative, and therefore invites identification, even though his ideology is at the same time denounced. Levy’s attempts to portray Hitler as both human and psychopath sparked off a debate in Germany about the limits and dangers of ‘humanizing’ the Nazi leader and ‘trivializing’ his role in history. From the Hitler satires and parodies in the 1930s to the films of Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator, 1940) and Ernst Lubitsch (To Be or Not to Be, 1942), Hitler has often been made fun of. Yet, Levy’s movie raised the question as to whether Germans themselves could now laugh at him. In the context of the German politics of remembrance of the Holocaust and World War II, the humorous representation of Hitler seems to point to an increasing yearning for ‘normalcy’ in German self-understanding and historiography.
Levy’s film can be regarded as a pastiche of visual memory in German post-war and post-Wall society. The images of Hitler viewers are familiar with in the media – Hitler as hysterical speaker and demagogue, military leader, and anti-Semite, but also as an animal and nature lover, unsuccessful artist, Eva Braun’s lover – constitute a visual archive that shapes public memory. Levy satirically re-enacts these well-known images and confronts them. By altering the historical imagery he breaks a taboo in defying the mythology of Hitler as the almighty dictator and the ultimate representation of evil. He is dissociated from the direct context of Holocaust and war, and through the hilarious acting exercises and behaviour therapy led by Adolf Grünbaum – played by Ulrich Mühe – he is presented as a victim of his own needs and drives. With his peculiar Austrian accent, hysterical mannerisms, wearing a yellow tracksuit, losing at one point half of his moustache Hitler is represented in an alienating way as an incorrigible, paranoid and, paradoxically, charming psychopath. This makes him a comical figure whose fantasies of world domination are opened to ridicule. The Nazi leader is reduced to the level of a puerile loser. In one particular scene Hitler is shown in his bath tub while making the Nazi salute and playing with a miniature warship. In another awkward sequence Hitler, being sexually impotent, is unable to make love to Eva Braun. Furthermore, in his acting classes Grünbaum makes Hitler crouch on all fours and bark like a dog, leading his beloved German shepherd Blondi to jump on his back. Levy claims his storyline is based on two important references. On the hand, Paul Devrient, a well-known German opera singer during the Weimar Republic, did indeed help Hitler in the early 1930s to improve his mode of public address. On the other hand, Levy refers to Alice Miller’s psychoanalytical interpretation of Hitler’s public behaviour in which she suggests obvious traces of severe parental abuse. The topic of childhood trauma due to miseducation and lack of love runs through the film as central theme, like when Hitler gets into bed with the Grünbaums looking for comfort, love and company. His helpless behaviour and ridiculous posture become symbolic iconography.
It is the controversial representation of Hitler as a pitiful buffoon which involuntarily renders him sympathetic to the audience. Indeed, frequent close-ups on Helge Schneider’s face aim at emphasizing and at the same time ridiculing the paranoid fears, hopes and other human emotions shown by the dictator. This technique was equally predominant in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film Downfall (2004), which was, in a similar fashion, attacked by a number of intellectuals as being too psychologically benevolent towards Hitler and consequently towards the Nazi regime as a whole. Grünbaum repeatedly pities the Nazi dictator for his miserable youth, incurable depression and uncontrollable hysterical fits of anger. As a result, in Mein Führer the maintenance of a balanced perspective in regard to the consciousness of being a perpetrator or a victim proves to be a laborious balancing act. In this respect intellectuals such as the dramatist Rolf Hochhuth, the journalist and author Henryk M. Broder or the vice-president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dieter Graumann, have emphasized that as a comedy Mein Führer – The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler seems to question the Holocaust as a fundamental civilizational caesura. Against the indictment of belittling the Holocaust and performing a reactionary re-interpretation of sacred symbols of genocide and repression, Levy – himself of Swiss-Jewish descent and winner of the Ernst Lubitsch Prize and the German Film Prize for Go for Zucker! (2004), an ironic comedy on contemporary German-Jewish life – has again and again stressed the politically subversive potential of humour, much more so than tragedy, in the context of films about the Third Reich.
Author of this review: Arvi Sepp