It's really hard to make a good argument in Hitler's defense. To put it mildly (and coloquially), the guy was a colossal dick. He tried to exterminate an entire race, picked fights with most of Europe and the U.S., and spouted all that Aryan superiority nonsense. All of this is patently indefensible. Maybe that's why so few filmmakers have tried. Nazis have suffered from horrible typecasting ever since the Third Reich shut down its own propaganda department: They're either targets for American gunfire, evil concentration camp commandants, or bumbling, inept fools. Every November sees the release of a couple more Oscar-bait Holocaust pics, but few of those ever risk sympathizing with the enemy. (Then there was The Reader, which may have sympathized a bit too much, if ya know what I mean.) I mean, Hitler was a really bad guy, and the Nazis who followed them were either stupid, evil or weak-willed. Is there anything more that needs to be said about it?
It turns out there is. Dani Levy's My Führer tackles the sensitive topic of Hitler's personality in a manner that is both daring and defensive, searching for the dictator's humanity while avoiding unnecessary provocation. That Levy is a German Jew should ease the cries of anti-Semitism that inevitably arise when a comedy starring Hitler hits theaters. And the film, ironically subtitled "The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler," makes liberal use of fantasy, inaccuracy, and historical irrelevancy to ensure that viewers realize he isn't earnest in his defense of Nazis. Discarding any notions of investigating the "truth," Levy uses the sharp blade of satire to dissect the motives and machinations of the men behind the Third Reich. The whole gang is here: Goebbels, Himmler, Speer, and the Führer, all presented as caricatures undone by anxiety, scheming, and seething, senseless hatred. Yet behind the buffoonery are deeper questions and hypotheses about what could make human beings act like such monsters.
The film opens in December, 1944, when the Führer's total war is proving to be a total disaster. Berlin is in ruins, the Allies are just over the horizon, and Hitler (Helge Schneider) himself is coming apart at the seams. But Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) isn't ready to give up just yet, and he believes that if he can coax Hitler into delivering one of those rallying, hate-filled invectives he's so famous for, the battle can still be won. The only problem is Hitler isn't the Führer he used to be, and so Goebbels enlists famed Jewish actor Adolf Grünbaum (the late Ulrich Mühe), taking him from a concentration camp, to help coach Hitler back to his former glory. Torn between the promise of his family's freedom, vengeance for his persecuted people, and what just may be sympathy for the broken, pathetic Hitler, Grünbaum finds himself in a morally compromised position.
Strangely, My Führer bears similarities to a more locally relevant political satire, Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog. When Goebbels erects sets to hide the damaged Berlin, evokes "staged reality," and brings an actor into the world of politics, he reminds us of Robert DeNiro conspiring with a Hollywood producer to fabricate a war in Levinson's film. Coincidentally, the scenes where Grünbaum works through acting techniques (which look a lot like psychotherapy) with the unstable Fuhrer also bear resemblance to another DeNiro picture, the "mobster with emotional issues" comedy Analyze This. The illusory world of politics and the hidden weaknesses of dangerous men have both proven to be fertile ground for comedy, but My Führer has some difficulty making those topics new, and mining them for laughs.
The film treads carefully through dangerous territory, poking fun here and there but failing to create unforgettably hilarious scenes. The incessenatly repeated "Heil Hitlers!" create a fairly funny running gag, and Hitler apologizing to the Jewish actor about "the whole final solution thing" is hysterical (you'll have to take my word for this one), but overall the film lacks the comedic edge that could have made it a classic. The movie handles its dramatic moments well, and Levy actually does succeed in examining Hitler's humanity. An abusive father, impotence, anxiety, and a fear of weakness are revealed to be the inspirations for the dictator's genocidal spree. Pure evil is a rather flimsy concept, and Hitler may not be the most evil person who ever lived, but merely the most successful.
By satirizing the Third Reich and looking at Hitler with a dash of pity, My Führer takes many risks. If Levy had resorted to broad comedy and slapstick, he would have run the risk of making a mockery of a serious subject. Instead, he subtly prods taboos, mixing humor with more serious moments. Unfortunately, as a result, the film makes its point about the insecurities that drive evil people but fails to achieve comedic brilliance. Chaplin's The Great Dictator was prescient for its mockery of the Reich, but memorable because it was fall-down hilarious. If we're going to poke fun at the Führer, we might as well go for big laughs.