A few weeks ago I breezed through the border at Madrid Barajas with my Bulgarian passport. Meandering in the city’s dry heat, I took in plaza after plaza full to the brim of people sitting around café tables chatting and sipping drinks. In the city center, a short walk from what is considered the heart of the entire country, Sol, there is a breathtaking palace. White as porcelain with spires to rival Oxford’s, it is the capital’s city council. Most captivatingly, since the 7th of September 2015, it is draped with an enormous banner that reads “REFUGEES WELCOME.” At first glance, it looks like the banner might have been placed there in protest. And I guess it was. It’s a protest against the anti-immigrant rhetoric gaining popularity the western world over. I think back anxiously to this banner now, having just watched an excellent but deeply disturbing comedy that touches on this topic.
In the German film Look Who’s Back, director David Wnendt adapts a bestselling satirical novel of the same name in which Adolf Hitler (Oliver Masucci) reappears in a poof of smoke to modern-day Germany. The dictator is dazed and unaware of the time that has elapsed, and the film traces his acquaintance, often hilarious, with the changes that have transpired since his suicide. Aided by a sympathetically pathetic TV freelancer, Hitler is driven around Germany and filmed speaking with citizens. These parts of the film are real interactions that Oliver Masucci, impersonating Hitler to a T, has with ordinary people. While many things have evolved drastically—technology, demographics, borders—one thing seems to eerily echo the past, and it is these candid interactions. The actor doesn’t have to dig deep to summon racist, nationalist vitriol from those being filmed. One man confides in Hitler with deadpan, man-to-man seriousness that African immigrants are “lowering Germany’s average IQ.” Another says, “Well, all those bearded folks, the ones who are suspicious, should be kicked out, to wherever. Some were born here, but still.” A third states the need for labor camps. Again and again, migrants are portrayed as the problem, and Germany as a sacred nation to be protected at any expense. It is particularly incredible to me that the interviewees offer up these beliefs, often framing them as truths suppressed by political correctness, to a Hitler impersonator, while being filmed. The producers of the film reportedly asked Wnendt to include more of the negative responses to Hitler. But in the 300+ hours of footage, there were only three, two of which are featured.
In the scripted portions of the film, Look Who’s Back teases out some of the media-driven factors that enable this toxicity. While the Borat-style interviews tell a story of difficult times—a story that is in line with recent economic crises and the spread of public service austerity—Hitler is quick to spot the dissonance in TV coverage. He flicks from cooking show to cooking show, bemoaning that such sophisticated media technology isn’t taking advantage of the opportunity to spread propaganda at a time of ripe discontent. He knows from experience that given some choice nudging, constituents can be quick to pick up simplistic, blame-the-other explanations for a complex reality. Meanwhile, the film’s fictional TV station brims with careerists jostling for positions of power in a ratings-obsessed setting where commercial wellbeing trumps substance. Hitler comes along knowing how to seduce an audience, and on the pretense that it’s satire (though it’s obvious that he’s dead serious), the viewer-hungry station rolls out the red carpet for him. Audience after audience eats up his narrative with admiration. But why?
In one key scene, the film plants a young leather-jacketed anarchist in a “World Cup fan zone” where he is surrounded by teens swaddled in German flags and face paint. The pretend-anarchist yells “Fuck Germany!”, and with some incitement from Hitler (which you’d think would have given them second thoughts), the youths begin to attack the anarchist. At first it’s childishly rough, but soon they force a shirt over his head and throttle him violently enough that the film crew apparently had to intervene to control the situation. In this, the film points out that the love of nation—whether it’s nurtured by sports competition or politicians peppering speeches with their country’s exceptionalism—is not benign. As Hitler addresses viewers from his newly provided TV platform, he rejects the scripted comedy the channel has given him, saying “But why make jokes about immigrants? If you have rats in your house, you don’t get a clown, you call pest control.” He goes on to list off a litany of real problems—child poverty, old-age poverty, unemployment—asking, “What kind of country is this?” The obvious assertion is that the problems plaguing the country, by some unexplained connection, are the fault of those who “do not belong” in it.
2015 saw a record 1.3 million migrants fleeing war to seek asylum in Europe. Germany, the primary destination for asylum seekers since 2012, received 442,000 applications in 2015. Despite the studies linking immigrants to increased economic prosperity, the conditions that we have set up for ourselves—where nationalism is not seen as a bad thing, where the geographic territory upon which a person is born can somehow render her or him better or worse than someone born on a different patch of land—make these statistics a loaded political weapon. Look Who’s Back reminds us that Hitler did not rise without support, and that the elements for nationalist destruction exist today, and are already being exploited by reductionist, power-hungry entities. It’s worth noting that the film was shot even before Donald Trump became the Republican presidential nominee campaigning on, among other things, a ban on Muslims entering the US. It was also filmed before the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.
I hope that years from now, this trend will be reversed and more people rather than fewer will be able to breeze through international borders. I hope that the sign on Madrid’s city hall will have been more than a symbolic gesture waving limply in the face of democratically sanctioned xenophobia. And lastly, I hope that more people watch this film so that it ends up being a timely warning rather than an indicator of things to come.