The Holocaust as Sketch Comedy

08/12/2009 4:00 AM |

My Führer
Directed by Dani Levy

Think of it: the 20th Century’s mustached exemplar of human suffering, kneeling and barking before a bespectacled Jew, asked to imagine his head reaching into the heavens, his body filling with tension, his voice resounding with affection. The man with the mustache, of course, is Adolf Hitler (Helge Schneider); the Jew (Ulrich Mühe), a celebrated actor, recruited from Sachsenhausen by the Nazis to coach the Führer in his last attempt to publicly galvanize the German people.

But as director Dani Levy’s sluggish and hoarse-throated leader of the German fatherland prepares for what is intended to be a speech of consolation, Berlin’s streets lay in ruins, the Allies are rounding Europe, and Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and company are growing increasingly paranoid. The setting — carnivorous, window-lit, panoptic — is Hitler’s study, a space that the pallid and shaven Jewish actor enters each morning, reluctantly training the Führer to stand straight, enunciate and gesticulate, while hoping to save his family from extermination.

There are enough tracking shots along corridors, enough images of sparse rooms and side-lit faces, enough moments of sexual humor and provocation that this film plays like a shelved Buñuel-Chaplin script, rediscovered and directed by Kubrick acolyte, and scored by a composer decommissioned from The Hours. The final speech, a reference to The Great Dictator without the earnestness or conviction of its message, is one last show for the road, an abrupt, bombastic ending to a film that has spent its first ninety minutes just getting started.

By all accounts, My Führer is a tasteless film, a grotesque model of a deadened, contemporary sensibility, grounded in irony and steeped in a sense of pastlessness that turns history into theatre. That’s not to say that all films should be transparent representations of historical reality, unfettered by playfulness or exaggeration. But it is to say that My Führer doesn’t have the awareness of a larger historical situation, that its myopic humor often feels incongruous and transportable to other eras, other wars, other dictators and their prisoners. By not finding larger connections between the situations of its characters and the milieu of the Third Reich, the film suffers from an irredeemable lack of imagination and purpose, stumbling its way toward gratuitousness.

Opens August 14