Comedy is notoriously difficult to translate from one region to another, and satire may be even harder. Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back caused a scandal upon its original publication in Germany—some Germans were understandably not thrilled by the book’s premise of Adolf Hitler rising from the dead and becoming a TV sensation—but it’s doubtful audiences outside the fatherland will feel a similar charge from this material. From within Nazism’s historical heart, it’s incendiary; from without, we can imagine the teeth, but it isn’t biting us.
The Fuhrer is indeed resurrected in Look Who’s Back (which cries out for the subtitle, “It’s Hitler!” followed by a jaunty TV jingle), waking outside the Führerbunker still reeking of the gasoline used to burn his first body. The book will follow him as he’s mistaken for a Hitler impersonator, which leads to his getting a segment on a sketch comedy show (the guy who owns the newspaper kiosk has some big-time contacts), and from there to his own talk show, which swiftly becomes a smash hit, as well as a headache for traditional media. Remember how some guests flailed against Stephen Colbert’s blowhard persona? Change that character to Hitler: that’s what these guests are up against here.
The book’s most volatile charge is that given another Hitler, sporting the same nationalistic jibber-jabber, Germans would be just as quick to embrace him as they were in the 1930s; fans briefly express trepidation about the Nazi salute, then do it enthusiastically as it comes back in vogue. No doubt this plays as far more cutting in Germany itself, where the crimes of the Third Reich are still living memories, but it rarely feels incisive here. Too much time is spent with Hitler adjusting to modern life; with such a big target in view, and at only 300 pages, Look Who’s Back doesn’t have space to waste. While it’s amusing to hear, say, Hitler’s dating advice (“You must be bold and go all out for total victory.”), or to have him go off on how the government should be breeding super-dogs “with better weaponry” who can do archery, that kind of clumsy shark-out-of-water humor suggests a real version of a comedy-program Hitler sketch, and not trenchant commentary. Hitler should feel more dangerous than he does here; perhaps the book’s first-person point of view diffuses too much of his power. This is a comedy about Hitler that elicits few gasps and fewer laughs, and that seems inexplicable.
The story’s main through-line recalls two other satires, both more successful to these American eyes. In Being There, a man’s extreme simplicity is mistaken for profundity because no one imagines that someone so well-dressed and well-spoken could be a fool. Here, Hitler’s sincerity is assumed to be satire, because who would actually rant against the Jews and Turks in this day and age? When Hitler insists that he’s serious, he’s hailed as a committed method actor. The success of Hitler’s show recalls Bamboozled, where white audiences embraced a modern minstrel program, leaping at the chance to cheer racist ideology with satire as the shield that excuses their enthusiasm. But there’s no difference between supporting Hitler ironically and supporting him sincerely; the audience’s positive reaction to his “material” speaks for itself. Anyone with reservations is brushed off as a killjoy, and no one wants to be seen as not getting the “joke.” One fan offers the vague excuse, “He’s doing it so it doesn’t happen again.” What other reason could Hitler have?
At times Vermes gives Hitler some attributes that put him in sync with modern times (his vegetarianism and hatred of flashy modern media; his lampooning of Vladimir Putin), but Look Who’s Back never feels terribly revealing about Hitler’s one-time appeal, or about Germany’s current political environment. The book ends with the show still on the ascension, meaning that the repercussions of this scenario are left up in the air, which feels like a cop-out. If Vermes believes that a Hitler could actually parlay TV fame into government influence, that’s one thing, but if audiences never become sincere converts, that says something very different about not just Germany and its media, but the general appeal of charismatic figures. If an author is going to float this kind of premise, he should heed his star’s advice, and go out for total victory.