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Culture and Education

"Look Who's Back" Challenges Its Readers

Tomotaka Okayama
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, Waseda University

As of the writing of this article, the movie Look Who's Back has become a smash hit in Japan. In this fictional story, Adolf Hitler, who supposedly committed suicide in 1945, revives in modern-day Germany. With his signature public speaking skills and through mysterious coincidences, Hitler becomes a TV star. The original novel, published in 2012, has been sold in 42 different countries and has reached 2.5 million copies in Germany, becoming a bestselling novel.

As it is well-acknowledged, the history of Nazism, Hitler in particular, is a sensitive topic in Germany. Still vivid in memory, the announcement by the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich on its intent to publish the annotated edition of Mein Kampf in 2015 after the copyright expiration stirred considerable controversy. Those against it were concerned that, even with an annotated version, allowing the publication of Mein Kampf could disseminate dangerous ideologies again, recruiting new followers. On the other hand, those who supported the publication argued that tabooing Hitler would not only mythicize him unnecessarily but also hinder confronting Hitler and his actions. Look Who's Back clearly identifies with the latter position. In an interview with the South German Newspaper, Timur Vermes, the author of the original novel, stated that one of his motives when writing the novel was that he wanted to destroy the conventional image of Hitler in Germany as an atrocious monster and create an opportunity to face him in a more open environment. Note, however, that Vermes' novel was not the first to take such approach to reflect on the past. Now that the German population comprises generations with no war experience, public discussions on German history have come to accept a wide variety of approaches and perspectives. This broader view of the past includes Hitler as well; there have been movies, exhibitions, and caricatures that spotlight the human side of him as seen in, for example, the movie Downfall (2004). Needless to say, such social change would never have occurred if not for the years of commitment by Germany to grapple with the Nazi past.

One of the surprising elements of the novel Look Who's Back is the portrayal of Hitler as a charming individual. The novel received heated criticisms for it, but this was exactly what Vermes was aiming for. In the story, Hitler is clumsy with the latest media technologies, such as computers and the Internet, and makes humorous comments while being totally lost about the modern society he finds himself in. These moments are often comedic; however, Hitler is, after all, Hitler. As the book progresses, thinking that another funny episode is coming up, readers will get, to borrow Verme’s words, “a slap to the face.” Hitler’s horrific nature suddenly surfaces. For instance, in the story, Hitler sees a woman cleaning up after her dog as she puts dog waste in a plastic bag. He thinks she has gone crazy and insists that she undergo surgical sterilization. Such a sudden jump in logic might make readers laugh for a second, but what he is saying is actually appalling and no joke. Then, readers who were laughing at Hitler until that point stop to realize that perhaps, they have come to like him just a little or even develop some sort of empathy towards him. This is how Look Who's Back constantly challenges its readers' values and morality.

Yet, the reality illustrated in the novel is a harsh one. Look Who's Back depicts ordinary people living amid a flood of information with an uncertain future, who only see what they want to see and become enticed by the clear, powerful messages Hitler renders as he cunningly takes advantage of such human nature. The novel ends uncannily when, after being assaulted by Neo Nazis, power political leaders from different parties start reaching out to Hitler to win him over despite having distanced themselves from him earlier. The fact that populists, such as Donald Trump, are gaining supporters underlines this kind of story development being not simply satirical but becoming reality. Look Who's Back also warns its readers about such movements worldwide.

Major German media did not rate this novel highly, but I am quite impressed by the insight into modern society by the author, who spent many years as a journalist. Look Who's Back is a novel well worth reading because it is a provocative project in which he constantly challenges the readers' values and morality while spicing up the story with a one-of-a-kind, black humor.

Tomotaka Okayama
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, Waseda University

Tomotaka Okayama completed the Doctoral Program in Literature and Linguistics, Tsukuba University, in 2007. He has been an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Law, Waseda University, since 2013. He specializes in modern German literature, especially Günter Grass. He has been studying the relationship between post-war German literature and the "culture of remembrance."