If Hitler were alive today, it would take a triumph of the will to sit through “Heil,” director Dietrich Brueggemann’s brazen assault on the present state of right-wing extremism in Germany, which ruthlessly lampoons what clowns the dead Fuehrer’s followers have become. Neo-Nazis get it worst, but nothing’s sacred (least of all good taste) in the helmer’s equal-opportunity offender. After his previous satire “Stations of the Cross” proved too subtle for some, Brueggemann instead opts for overkill this time around, cramming this politically incorrect comedy with so many ideas, one can’t help feeling exhausted. Still, taxing as it is to watch, the film deserves credit for confronting the problem head-on, which is more than can be said of most local media. Simultaneously courageous and ill-considered, “Heil” should satisfy Germany’s peculiar sense of humor at the domestic box office, while sparking provocative attention abroad.
To fully appreciate the sheer audacity of Brueggemann’s premise — which posits that Germans haven’t really changed in the 70 years since World War II, but have merely gotten better at masking their hypocrisy and prejudices — try to imagine a subject still too touchy for American comedians to go near (say, Dave Chappelle’s scandalous “Black White Supremacist” sketch, for example) expanded to feature length with nary a moment’s recovery time built in. From its heavy-metal opening, which flashes images of Hitler, warfare and stacked Holocaust corpses before leaping forward decades to find a Neo-Nazi struggling to spell “White Power” in spray paint, “Heil” offers no apologies en route to antagonizing everyone.
The film takes place in Prittwitz, a tiny German town situated at the corner of three states where three different constitutional protection orgs have hired informants to keep tabs on the extreme right-wing activity brewing in the region. As far as local law enforcement is concerned, however, the Prittwitz police chief makes it clear that he wants no mention of the word “Nazi”: Every arrest brings negative publicity to his town, so he orders his top cop, Sascha (Oliver Broecker), to ignore the skinheads or, failing that, at least not to mention their affiliations when making arrests — the tip of the iceberg when it comes to critiquing nuances of how present-day Germany deals with lingering traces of its ultra-nationalist past.
Into the midst of this loony situation ambles unsuspecting Afro-German peace activist Sebastian Klein (Jerry Hoffmann), a respected black intellectual who is promptly kidnapped by two skinheads, Kalle (Daniel Zillmann) and Johnny (Jacob Matschenz) — a Laurel and Hardy-esque duo, one fat, the other hunched and anxious — and brainwashed, Three Stooges-style. A heavy blow to the head erases Sebastian’s memory and reduces this formerly lucid thinker to a dazed puppet, parroting whatever those around him say. For the thugs’ boss, clean-cut political aspirant Sven (Benno Fuermann), Sebastian is just the ticket his lagging campaign needs, giving him a trained monkey he can drag out on the talkshow circuit to spout whatever nonsense he believes (a person of color preaching about the immigrant “problem,” etc.).
Until this point, Brueggemann commands a certain degree of awe for his nerve alone, but as the satire mounts, it grows more and more difficult for foreign audiences to keep up. There are rival right-wing candidates who barely hide their next-to-Nazi political agendas, still more who confuse by trying to blend in (the Nazi hipsters, or “nipsters”), and innumerable others with allegiances that seem to change whichever way the wind blows — which, of course, says a lot about the national character as well. Perhaps the only common thread uniting all the characters is that no one seems to hold a sincere political view, but all are either too ignorant or too oblivious to question the nuttiness unfolding around them.
In a relatively typical gag, Sven’s rival commissions a hip new logo to brand his party, and his daughter (who clearly doesn’t share his views) accepts the challenge, cleverly suggesting a swastika rising from a fire pit, saluted by a loyal follower — a design that actually looks more like a stick figure dropping the old Nazi logo into a trash bin. Anyone can “get” that joke, though it takes a bit more work to untangle the Mel Brooksian chaos of the various talkshow appearances, where various pundits (including a filmmaker named Dietrich Brueggemann) shout over one another. Add to the daunting political context the fact that the film is dense with inside jokes, including the casting of German directors and celebrities in bit parts, and much of the humor is sure to escape audiences at foreign fests that have invited the pic to screen, including Jerusalem and Karlovy Vary, in cities where WWII survivors still remember Nazi crimes.
Ultimately, it’s something of a copout that Brueggemann has chosen to parody the idea of neo-Nazism, as opposed to actually taking neo-Nazi ideas to task. Basically, the running joke is that these skinheads are little more than hyper-aggressive, sexually frustrated numbskulls overcompensating to impress the girls who wouldn’t pay attention to them otherwise. In that respect, Sven is “Heil’s” perfect poster boy — a politician whose actual policy is dictated by the hot Aryan chick Doreen (Anna Brueggemann) who routinely ignores him — while a sensation-seeking TV reporter serves to reflect the media’s hypocritical dealings with such subjects.
In keeping with the pic’s preposterous tone, when Doreen tells Sven to bug off until he’s been appointed Fuhrer and invaded Poland, he hatches an elaborate scheme to do exactly that: He steals a German tank and drives it across the Polish border, intending to spark World War III — though the only casualties seem to be his fellow crackpots. As you can see, the ideas get more outrageous, but markedly less amusing as the film unspools. By the end, Brueggemann finds himself in dangerous territory, poking insensitive fun without the justification of actually being funny.
With the possible exception of belligerent expat Uwe Boll, few of Brueggemann’s countrymen have shown the nerve to be so direct in their critiques of the German character, but Boll’s “Postal” (the film this one most resembles) makes for an unflattering comparison, to say the least. Stylistically speaking, few would guess that this cacophonous comedy hails from the same hand as the slyly satirical “Stations of the Cross.” No one could miss that pic’s head-on religious critique, though many of its admirers failed to recognize that Brueggemann chose that film’s relatively restrained style in order to parody the ultra-austere fixed-camera aesthetic so frequently celebrated on the festival circuit today. Now he has gone back to his weapon of choice: technically adept filmmaking that veers dangerously close to the berserk.
Film Review: 'Heil'
Reviewed at Munich Film Festival, June 27, 2015. (Also in Karlovy Vary Film Festival — competing; Jerusalem Film Festival.) Running time: 103 MIN.
(Germany) A Beta Cinema presentation of an X Verleih (in Germany) release of a Real Film Berlin, Letterbox Filmproduktion production, in co-production with Bella Firma, Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, Suedwestrundfunk, ARD Degeto, in collaboration with Arte, with the support of Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, Filmfoerderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein, Deutscher Filmfoerderfonds, Filfoerderanstalt. (International sales: Beta Cinema, Munich.) Produced by Michael Lehmann, Kartrin Goetter. Executive producer, Guenther Russ. Co-producer, Dietrich Brueggemann.
Directed, written by Dietrich Brueggemann. Camera (color, widescreen), Alexander Sass; editor, Vincent Assmann; music, Brueggemann; production designer, Theresia Anna Ficus; costume designer, Juliane Maier; sound (Dolby Atmos), Jacob Ilgner; supervising sound editor, Martin Fruehmorgen; re-recording mixer, Holger Lehmann; line producer, Holger Hartl.
Benno Fuermann, Liv Lisa Fries, Jerry Hoffmann, Jacob Matschenz, Daniel Zillmann, Oliver Broecker, Anna Brueggemann, Thelma Buabeng, Richard Kropf, Joerg Bundschuh, Michael Gwisdek, Hanns Zischler.