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Friday, Sept. 5, 2008
'The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler'
Carry on the Nazis
By KAORI SHOJI
Since "The Downfall" (2004), stories about Hitler or German life under the Third Reich have been rapidly emerging from Germany created by a new generation of directors born long after World War II. "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days" from 2005 is the standout, a heavily introspective work about a girl who is executed for distributing antiwar fliers.
Now, "The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler" is the latest in the crop of Hitler movies. It's a different breed from what we've come to expect from Nazi-related films, though. A comedy that walks the fine line between humanistic humor and sheer screwball comedy, "Truly" pities and laughs at one of the 20th century's most horrific dictators.
The year is 1944, and Germany is in shambles. Hitler (Helge Schneider) is a stuttering, heavily depressed neurotic who, when pressed to make decisions, hurries to the corner of the room and hugs his knees. Third Reich mastermind Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), who could be the suave director of an ad agency (get the man an iPhone and a Zegna suit!), decides that shock therapy is in order. He calls for Professor Adolf Israel Grunbaum (played by the dauntingly excellent Ulrich Muhe) — one of the nation's most renowned performing artists, now sentenced to hard labor in a concentration camp — to come and coach Hitler into rekindling some charisma.
The opening sequence is delightfully cheeky: Goebbels gives the order, setting off an interminable chain of paperwork, punctuated by the thudding of many stamps. When, finally, the right documents reach Grunbaum's camp, he's plucked from a line of emaciated men working in a quarry, thrown in the shower and given a shirt and tie. Grunbaum is incredulous at finding himself actually bathing, clutching a bar of soap, being driven in a car through the streets of Berlin. His gaping expression speaks louder than any narrative of the long years of pain and deprivation.
Once Grunbaum's tutoring is under way he sees that his pupil, Hitler, is a hulking, pouting mass of stress, and so dependent on his new teacher that Grunbaum almost forgets how he had sworn to murder the monster at the earliest opportunity. Not an easy thing since Goebbels agrees to free Grunbaum's family so they could temporarily live together in the same quarters, and Hitler himself follows Grunbaum around like a puppy looking for love. Coincidentally, they share the same first names. On occasion, Grunbaum loses control; coaching the Fuhrer to spar, he finds his own fist flying out to punch the other Adolf squarely on the nose.
There's a lot that's ambiguous about "Truly," as if it can't make up its mind whether to go all out for farce or try different modes of subtle humor. That pondering, though, is what lends the film an edge and integrity that would have been absent if Levy had decided on a single mood. It's also less emotional than other films about the period — Grunbaum for example, is always careful to step back from the sudden, life-altering course of events and wills himself to measure, evaluate and then negotiate his position (closing down the camp and releasing all the inmates is one of the things he argues long and hard for). But he's also a perfectionist and tutors Hitler with professional dedication. Goebbels smoothly tells him what a good job he's doing, adding oh-so-matter-of-factly: "By the way, that little issue about the Final Solution? I assure you professor, it's nothing personal." And that would seem to sum up the tone of the story as well — it's intended to be funny but there's distance in the laughter, reminding us of the deep darkness enveloping the whole story like an imperceptible but poisonous gas.