Friday, August 14, 2009

He Ain't Heavy, He's Mein Führer

My Führer
Directed and written by Dani Levy
Starring Ulrich Mühe, Helge Schneider, Sylvester Groth, Adriana Altaras
Opens August 14, 2009
First Run Features

Mühe in My Fuhrer

Dani Levy’s My Führer is a one-joke black comedy, but when that joke is well executed, who’s to quibble?

Late in the war, the Reich is crumbling, and Hitler’s main henchman Josef Goebbels has the bright idea to boost morale by having Hitler give a rousing speech in Berlin to the forlorn German people. The problem? The Fuhrer himself has become depressed by events and is in no condition to speak as convincingly as he could at his peak.

Goebbels’ solution is to have his boss “train” under the tutelage of Professor Adolf Grünbaum, a Jewish actor currently in a concentration camp with his family. Goebbels decides not to hire one of many famous Aryans for this job because Grünbaum’s Jewishness will work in his favor, since the assumption is that Hitler will never bond with him: their interaction will be all business.

Writer-director Levy runs with this idea, and—despite eye-rolling physical comedy that borders on door-slamming farce, mostly involving Hitler‘s pet German Shepherd—My Führer is an amusingly absurd ride through the waning days of the Nazi regime; if it never approaches the rarefied level of Chaplin’s immortal The Great Dictator, neither does it troll around in the pious sanctimony of Roberto Benigni’s insufferable Life Is Beautiful.

My Führer blithely juggles problematic if funny concepts about Hitler’s neuroses, like a daddy complex (apparently, the Fuhrer’s father beat him mercilessly), and his hatred for Jews in the abstract, not Grünbaum and his family. To underscore his line of cinematic attack, Levy attaches an epilogue showing actual Germans of all ages talking about Hitler’s infamy: whether scripted or not, their responses run the gamut, from utter cluelessness to wishes for his eternal damnation.

Levy knows that his comedic concept about Hitler’s brittle psychology isn‘t worth much if his actors can’t sell it onscreen, which they do. In a richly comic performance, Helge Schneider avoids caricaturing Hitler, instead portraying a maniac whose own mental instability has put him through the ringer—and whose checkered past continues haunting him. Sylvester Groth’s Goebbels is handsomer than his real-life counterpoint, but his is a zesty portrayal of an egotist who believes his solutions to the Reich’s mess are the only way out of what’s becoming a suicidal proposition.

As Grünbaum’s faithful wife Elsa, Adriana Altaras combines a pleasing plainness with a shrewdly no-nonsense manner that finds its greatest resourcefulness when she invites Hitler into bed when he’s having bad dreams. But My Führer works primarily because of the extraordinary Ulrich Mühe. Best known for his memorable villain in The Lives of Others, the chameleon-like Mühe died far too young at age 54 of cancer (after finishing this film), and will be dearly missed: Mühe’s subtle combination of straight man and comedian ensures that My Führer, even at its bumpiest, is in expert hands right to the end.

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