It’s 2011 and Hitler wakes up from a 66-year long coma in a park in Berlin. He befriends a newsagent who assumes he is a look-alike. Astounded by his resemblance and brilliant ‘acting’, the newsagent puts him in touch with the producer of a comedy talk show. Soon, Hitler is their most popular guest, generating an ever-increasing following. Look Who’s Back takes a stab at tackling one of Germany’s greatest taboos, but is also a satire on our obsession with the cult of celebrities.
Hitler is formally hired by the talk show production company and given a secretary, the pale, black clad, Goth Fräulein Krömeier. Why don’t you wear ‘a gay blouse’ or ‘a pretty skirt’, Hitler suggest, conjuring up images of Eva Braun’s floral dresses. Hitler’s stilted formal language is in comical contrast to Fräulein Krömeier’s slang peppered with ‘Likes’, ‘L.O.L.’s’ and ‘O.M.G’s’.
‘That’s sooooooo cool. Can I ask you a question? Is this method acting?’
‘You know, what De Niro does? And Pacino? Method acting? Where you’re like, completely immersed in your role?’ Each of her sentences sounded as if it were a question.
‘Look here, Fräulein Krömeier,’ I said firmly, rising from my chair. ‘I have no idea what you are talking about…’
People around him assume he is pretending, Hitler can’t believe they don’t realise he is the real thing and, as he rises to fame, they all try to get a glimpse of the man behind the acting. But there is no acting, of course. His employer does a background check ‘to find out whether one is actually employing a devoted Nazi.’
‘Well,’ I said peevishly, ‘I imagine the results will have reassured you.’
‘On the one hand, yes,’ Madame Bellini said. ‘We didn’t find anything bad.’
‘And on the other?’
‘On the other hand, we didn’t find anything at all. It’s as if you didn’t exist.’
Hitler’s time travel is the source of a lot of the humour in this book. He’s astounded by the absence of Russian troops, the fact that almost everyone is ‘equipped with wireless receivers’ and the potential of the ‘Internetwork’ as a propaganda machine.
One of Vermes’ aims is to demonstrate that the cult of Hitler could have happened today, just as it did 70 years ago. However much we despise him, there is no denying that Hitler was a clever orator. His talk show performances are reminiscent of speeches from the war: short, to the point and populist. Hitler’s brusque and authoritarian behaviour still whips people into submission and slowly they start agreeing with him.
There are some very funny moments in Look Who’s Back. Vermes has got Hitler’s rigid, humourless, uncompromising personality spot on. It is a shame he doesn’t develop the story more, though. After a while, it simply becomes too repetitive. Hitler is himself, booming on with his usual propaganda; while people around him believe he is an impersonator. The comedy of this misunderstanding wears off.
Although most of us can probably imagine the elements of German popular culture referred to in the book, I suspect this book will be funnier if you live in Germany and know the German political scene, the talk show hosts etc. (I did discover a translator’s note at the very end of the book which would have been much more helpful had it been at the start.)
Humour can be an effective way of dealing with difficult subjects, and although Vermes, at times, is dangerously close to overstepping the mark, he just about manages to stay on the right side. Look Who’s Back has sold 1,5 million copies in Germany and is sure to attract a lot of attention in the 28 languages it has, so far, been translated into. I was slightly disappointed by this book, although top marks for an ingenious cover design!
Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes published by MacLehose Press, 352 pages.