The curious character metamorphosis of Adolph Hitler from Saturday serial stock boogieman to callow, insecure, and effete showman is easily one of postmodernism’s most insidiously clichéd contributions to comedy. The global need for the satirical shift is clear: We couldn’t go on simply pricking the distended bulb of der Führer’s megalomania a la The Great Dictator forever, and the most successful entries in the “harmless Hitler” canon have a cathartic undercurrent, as though the magnification and refraction of the Chancellor’s most emasculating flaws could somehow slacken the taut, historical stranglehold of the Holocaust’s dumbfounding veracity. But nowhere in the subtext of The Producers, with its inanely beatnik Hitler, or even Family Guy, where all of Hollywood visits the saucy late-night antics of The Hitler Show, is it even considered that pointing and guffawing at the political monster’s irreparably warped ego (rather than the misdeeds it led to, which are much harder to laugh at), was arguably a significant part of the singular chain of abusive events in the Austrian’s off-kilter maturation. Are we subjecting Hitler’s stereotype to the very mistreatment that contributed to the man’s infamous persona?
This line of inquiry is what makes the first two acts of My Führer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler so mindfuckingly successful. The humor sardonically ribs the Teutonic titan while coming from a seemingly human place of, if not understanding or sympathy, a subtle, subversive form of respect. Unlike The Simpsons or Mel Brooks’s ubiquitous Nazi gags, this film knows full well what Hitler is capable of—and yet it still manages to be funny as it reminds us. Part of this balancing act is achieved through the narrative’s timeline: It begins in 1945, in the Third Reich’s darkest hour, after Berlin has been reduced to a smoldering collection of rubble (hilariously, all of Hitler’s strategic models of the city have been altered to reflect this carnage). The Nazi party’s executives are acutely aware of their impending defeat, and the opening moments are punctuated with a futile mantra of “Heil Hitler"s, endlessly and ironically repeated while some of Germany’s biggest names harriedly scurry about in an attempt to salvage their remaining power. Hitler himself (Helge Schneider in a beautifully timed performance), by now sickly and paranoid, has been scheduled to deliver a call to arms before the entirety of the German capital, but he can hardly muster the courage to poke his scalp out of the guarded citadel in which he resides.
In a forgivingly preposterous turn of events, Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) enlists the help of a Jewish dramatist, Grünbaum (Ulrich Mühe), who is to rebuild the Führer’s confidence and oratory skills in five days (Goebbels goes so far as to yank both him and his family out of labor camps). The cookie-cutter “makeover” premise leads to a number of predictable sketches (the moment when Hitler is reduced to a groveling animal under the guise of dramaturgical role-playing is oddly satisfying, as if we’re glad to have gotten the obvious joke out of the way), but the careful rapport developed between the genocidal architect and the Jewish prisoner miraculously manages to straddle the matzo-thin border between daring and tasteless. Both men are deeply conflicted by the partnership—Grünbaum most of all, who justifies his participation in Hitler’s rebirth by bartering for the lives of his wife and offspring—and yet make attempts at professional civility, as though determined to seem the bigger man in the end. “Don’t take the Holocaust thing so personally,” Hitler nonchalantly mentions. “It wasn’t even really my idea.” And when the breathing and posture exercises transition to therapeutic conversations regarding Hitler’s strained relationship with his father, Grünbaum reluctantly plays Freud to the leader’s analysand in an effort to appeal to his humanity. He fails, of course (anything less would be uncomfortably revisionist), but the sight of Hitler cuddling out the aftershocks of night terrors between Grünbaum and his gaunt wife on a military cot strangely compartmentalizes and consolidates the man’s clashing stereotypes: Under Grünbaum’s sheets, der Führer is both sniveling child and haunted dictator, both racist executioner and self-doubting chief.
The conclusion of the movie is marred by a sharp, unnecessary turn toward sobriety, during which writer-director Dani Levy threatens the ribald glow of his project with some cringingly ill-considered moments. When one of Grünbaum’s friends is forced at gunpoint to fib about the closure of Sachsenhausen (one of the theater professor’s demands) over the phone, we feel the film’s tone slipping down the maudlin crevasse of the worst Holocaust drama, and it never quite regains its footing; even Hitler’s grand speech finale is an uneven attempt at banal statement-making. But what My Führer wittily realizes in its most accomplished sequences is that the diverse emotional baggage Hitler has collected over the years fits neatly under the blanket of egocentricism rather than simply ruthless egotism, and that mocking this may be the only way of playing Hitler for laughs without cavalierly neglecting the dark side.
Helge Schneider projects the role as a well-minded but utterly perverted patriot caught in a solipsist cloud—we can easily imagine him sending women and children to the gas chambers because he lacks the ability to perceive social and political interaction as anything but the confrontation of paternal angst and penis envy. These are rote complexes, but on a comic Hitler they seem archetypal. Of course, the portrayal almost excuses the crimes of WWII through determinist psychoanalysis, but not quite. In the end, we laugh most heartily knowing that Hitler can’t be exonerated, and that we can’t really identify with him either: He’s one of history’s most unsalvageable lost causes, and far more deserving of the occasional small dick joke than of his station at the zenith of the villain canon.