What He Really Wanted To Do Was Direct

My F焗rer directed by Dani Levy

Adolf Hitler Ulrich Muhe, Helge Schneider

Adolf Hitler's relationships with artists is a subject that continues to fascinate other artists 行 Mephisto (1981) and Hanussen (1988), both directed by Iztvan Szabo and starring Klaus Maria Brandauer, come to mind, not to mention the real-life saga of Leni Riefenstahl. Of course Hitler himself was a failed artist; then there were the spectacular theatrics of the Nazi regime that mesmerized the German public and bestowed them with illusions of grandeur.

In the Szabo films, Hitler is a distant, almost mythical figure whose ascension to legend the artist unwittingly assists (in Mephisto, Brandauer's actor character sells his soul and becomes one with the cosmic Enabler he portrays onstage). In writer/director Dani Levy's My F焗rer, on the other hand, the artist meets Hitler in his twilight (four more months to go), and we get closer to the F焗rer 行 much, much closer, sharing a shrink's couch, cot and blanket.

A black sedan speeds through a bombed-out Berlin, its jagged edges exaggerated by a wide-angle lens. It's Christmas 1944, five months after yet another assassination attempt. The Russians are in Slovakia; France and the Netherlands are long gone. Despite the delusions his coterie feeds him daily, der F焗rer is a nervous wreck: paranoid, bloated and hopped up on amphetamines. The scheduled New Year's address is five days away and his handlers desperately want that old Hitler magic back. Goebbels comes up with a final solution: He pulls Professor Adolf Israel Gr焠baum (Ulrich M焗e, The Lives of Others), a renowned actor, from the Sachsenhausen camp (Goebbels apologizes: "I thought we had put you up in Terezin, that's our nicest camp") to coach Hitler. The prisoner is brought to headquarters, where soldiers and officials alike try to comprehend the unusual visit. Heil Hitlers are hastily exchanged in panic; the German language has never sounded so ridiculous.

Helge Schneider's Hitler, far from the agile Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, just about stirs sympathy. Sylvester Groth confirms Goebbels 行 the multimedia orchestrator of propagandas, and the real power junkie 行 to be a womanizing sleazeball. But the true star of the film is M焗e. His Professor Gr焠baum is an artist caught between his professionalism and his humanity. Just as Dirk Bogarde would have done in the role, M焗e imbues his character's emotional turmoil with intelligence and dignity. Professor Gr焠baum knows what makes Hitler tick, and instructs his pupil to get in touch with his hatred. Gr焠baum bargains with Goebbels to save his family and risks them again to have all of his fellow inmates released, then, when his wife tries to smother a sleeping Hitler with a pillow, he defends his pupil by saying, "He was an unloved child!"

With that peculiar little mustache, bacon-grease-pasted hair and hysterical mannerisms, it would have indeed been easy to make yet another Hitler cartoon 行 and ridicule, like violence, is a product of hatred. But it was the coexistence of revulsion and empathy that made Chaplin's Dictator great. Levy plays it straight, until it is impossible not to laugh; he knows there are situations whose horror reaches absurd proportions. M焗e is a master of ambiguity when his character, in the end, turns Hitler's speech into a mass self-affirmation rally. Did he succeed? Did he fail? We, 65 years later, know what would soon befall the tyrant 行 but that's an infinitely rich moment afforded us by the luxury of time.

行 Rika Ohara