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How far can Germany go with Nazi satire?

Sarah Hofmann / kbmJuly 16, 2015

An Afro-German starts talking like a neo-Nazi after the right-wingers beat him up in the new film satire, "Heil." If Germany is going to laugh about Nazis, it should have a better reason to, says DW's Sarah Hofmann.

Scene from the film "Heil", Copyright: X-Verleih
Image: X-Verleih

It starts with a shock and the text "Deutschland 1945" on a black board. Cut. Historic footage of a Hitler speech. Cut. Piles of corpses in Bergen-Belsen. Cut. "Deutschland 1945" on a black board. Cut. One of the main characters in the film, a neo-Nazi, spraying "Wheit Pauer" - presumably intended to read "White Power" - and a swastika on a wall.

The first sequence in the film "Heil" lasts only five seconds. But the scenes are powerful. The audience stops laughing when the images jump from 1945 to 2015.

As a German in the audience, I find myself asking: Is that ok? Can images of Nazi crimes be used to evoke laughter without offending the victims? I decide that, yes, it can. But with one caveat: It has to hurt.

If the humor is black, then it should be bad.

How far can clichés be taken?

Nevertheless, even in 2015, Nazi jokes shouldn't be turned into slapstick in Germany - and that's the problem with "Heil." The plot cannot be summed up in a few lines. It opens in Prittwitz, a fictional East German village that fulfills every cliché and is controlled by neo-Nazis. Afro-German author Sebastian Klein has a reading scheduled in this very town. Shortly after he arrives, he is beaten up and kidnapped by a bunch of neo-Nazis. The slapstick element comes when Klein suffers from amnesia after being hit on the head and mimics everything the neo-Nazis say for the rest of the film.

In talk shows, Klein rants xenophobic slogans. It's a victory for neo-Nazi boss, Sven, who is competing with other neo-Nazi groups: the new Nazis in the West and the Nipsters. The latter dress like hipsters and know their way around social media, which gives them an advantage over the backward twits from Prittwitz. Then there are the local gangs that are just waiting for an opportunity to march into Poland again.

And Sebastian? His pregnant girlfriend - the epitome of the well-situated, hip Berlin mom - comes looking for him.

Bureaucracy makes bland film not bad enough

Got it? Like I said, it's complicated. The film doesn't just make fun of neo-Nazis, but of everyone in Germany in the year 2015. The dogmatic left-wing Antifa followers are taken to task, as are the talk shows that constantly try to rile up viewers with fabricated controversies. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution doesn't come away unscathed either, for being no more efficient than any other German government agency.

A few of the scenes are really hilarious. Like when the constitutional protection office, which is divided up by state in Germany, sends three undercover investigators to infiltrate the neo-Nazi scene in Prittwitz, because the village is located at the junction of these different states: Brandenburg, Thüringen and Saxony. The situation is a commentary on federal Germany's inability to ban the far-right political party NPD and investigate the xenophobic NSU murder series.

The history of right-wing violence in Germany couldn't be more absurd and it is as suited to comedy as Hitler was for Charlie Chaplin. But unfortunately, "Heil" parallels the country's failure to stifle the far-right with so many banalities that the result is bland. It's not as black, not as bad as it should be.

Are Germans just not funny enough?

It would be too simple to say the Germans just aren't funny enough, or that they can't keep up with the Brits, who easily manage to produce biting black comedies, like "Four Lions" about terrorists in London. Germany has also come up with good stuff, like "Mein Führer," a 2007 film by Dani Levy. "Mein Führer" does what "Heil" doesn't - it doesn't underplay the incomprehensible horror of the Nazi regime, while still poking fun at the perpetrators. "Why? Because we want to understand what we will never understands," concludes the film.

In "Mein Führer," Jewish acting coach Adolf Grünbaum is hired to prepare the depressed Nazi leader for his New Year's speech in 1945. When Hitler screams, "I want my Jew - dead or alive! Alive would be better. And in a good mood," then it's difficult not to laugh. One could say that director Dani Levy, as a Jew from Switzerland, is allowed to say things Germans wouldn't. Comedian Oliver Polak uses the argument, "I'm allowed to because I'm Jewish." But are Germans so inhibited that, when it comes to Nazi topics, they can't strike cleanly between the legs?

Wanted: smart take on Nazi jokes

Author Timur Vermes managed to do just that with his 2012 book, "Look Who's Back." Like "Heil," he mixed current social critique with Hitler and Germany's historical woes. In the book, the dictator rants coldly about Jewish deaths, the war of extermination and the occupation of Leningrad. But with Vermes, it really hurts. It was courageous of him to give Hitler a first-person voice. After big German dramas about young neo-Nazis - like "Combat Girls" in 2011 - it was high time for a biting comedy about the new Nazis.

"Heil" lacks this courage, however. All the Nazis in the film are so incredibly stupid, they don't even know how to spell "White Power." This shallow approach doesn't do justice to Germany's crimes. Moving historical footage like the corpses at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp shouldn't be used lightly, out of respect for the millions of victims they represent.

As long we're dealing with right-wing extremists who demonstrate in front of refugee camps, there's nothing to chuckle about. "Heil" focuses too much on the moral question of whether Germans can joke about neo-Nazis. "Only if the laugh stays in your throat," is the answer in one scene. The audience didn't give more than a light chuckle in response. They deserved a more intelligent approach.

"Heil" opens Thursday (16.07.2015) in German cinemas.