Any film about Adolf Hitler is guaranteed to stir controversy in Germany, never mind a film based on a farce. "Mein Kampf" tells the story of a young Hitler in pre-World War I Vienna. The title, taken from the Nazi dictator's own infamous diatribe, is enough to upset people. But Swiss director Urs Odermatt's film adapts a popular 1987 play of the same name by George Tabori, a farce full of fast-paced jokes.
The producers of the joint German-Austrian-Swiss movie -- which comes out in Germany today -- will no doubt hope to tap some of the success enjoyed by Oliver Hirschbiegel's "Downfall." The 2004 hit is a benchmark of what a film about Hitler can achieve: Successful at the box office, it also received an Oscar nomination.
But despite Bruno Ganz's stunning turn as Hitler in the last days of the war, controversy raged in Germany over whether "Downfall" was right to even depict the Nazi dictator as human, capable of charming secretaries and being nice to dogs. Hitler farces are even dicier. Mel Brooks did well in Germany with a 2009 revival of his stage musical "The Producers," but director Dani Levy's 2007 farce, "Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler," flopped.
The Dictator as a Young Man
"Mein Kampf" has a 20-year-old Hitler, played by Tom Schilling, arriving in Vienna from provincial Austria, staying at a boarding house for poor men while hoping to win admission to the Academy of Fine Arts. He fails but meets a blonde girl called Gretchen (Anna Unterberger), as well as a grey-bearded old Jewish man called Schlomo Herzl. This fictitious character, invented by Tabori and played by Götz George, inspires the infamous Hitler hairstyle as well as the "Mein Kampf" title for his future memoir -- and sets Hitler on a political path.
Odermatt's big-screen version tries to mix realistic details with farce. Hitler speaks in High German in Tabori's play; the comedy is blatant and relentless. But the film version has a provincial Austrian dialect, like the real Hitler, and the whole film, eventually, becomes mired between genres. "Mein Kampf" comes across as a docu-soap on the Nazi dictator's wandering youth and his path to becoming a mass murderer.
Reaction in Germany has been largely negative. Margot Ruhlender, a critic for the dpa news agency, says that Schilling "shines as the young Hitler," though the director fails to get it right. "There is no way of getting round the charge of indecisiveness against (Odermatt) ... Not having dared to jump into the total absurdity (of the play) is his weak point."
Der Tagesspiegel, a Berlin paper, calls Odermatt's film "insipid." He buries the "colorful life" of the story under "patina and postcard views ... The best thing about Urs Odermatt's historical film Mein Kampf is that he makes you re-read George Tabori's play."
A similar theme is picked up by Michael Ranze, in the Hamburger Abendblatt. The Tabori play is "not a realistic, let alone historically accurate recreation of Hitler's formative years in Vienna around 1910, but an attempt to trace the pathology of this man; his neuroses, his fixations, his thoughts." The film adaptation just "tells a story" about the young Hitler. "The Jew and the dictator -- what a wonderful farce that would have made. Instead: papery dialogue, careless sets that never convey a sense of a bygone era, and posing actors who are content with crude gestures."
The bar is still high for Hitler films in Germany. Neither a serious drama nor a farce automatically disqualifies a director; but you have to be careful.