There is a brilliantly funny, whipsmart moment in Dietrich Brϋggemann‘s “Heil” and it’s the first thing we see. A lightning-paced glimpse of deeply familiar World War II imagery — chaos; Hitler salutes; bombs falling in black and white — smash cuts, almost before we’ve registered what we’re looking at, to a huge, droll title: 70 YEARS LATER. Boom! We’re in present-day Germany, and that’s all we need to know about that. This arresting, sly opening got a huge laugh, and along with the scrapbooky lo-fi splashy style of the opening credits, primed us for a blast: a punkish, iconoclastic take on a most taboo subject that would be all the more explosive and insightful for coming in a German film (a comedy at that) from a German director. And for a short while that’s what “Heil” is, before it careens headlong into its own contradictions, is undone by its writer/director’s utter disdain for all of his characters and has to resort to simpleminded farce to claw its way out of the wreckage of its exhaustingly overcomplex plot.
As a confrontational, no-holds-barred assault on the lunatic fringe, designed to deliver a kinetic shock to the system, it would seem to be a stylistic 180 from Brϋggemann’s last film, the self-consciously stately formalist experiment “Stations of the Cross” (review here). But look a little closer and the filmmaking attitude is very similar (though ‘Stations’ was co-directed by Brϋggemann’s sister Anna, where “Heil” is not) — in fact, “Heil” suffers from many of the same credibility issues, amplified here because there’s no disciplined format to give the illusion of disciplined thinking. Again there’s the sense of the film being constructed as a vast straw man argument: it is a satire about neo-Nazis that does not confront any of the real-world reasons why such a toxic ideology might be flourishing again (there’s no examination of social marginalization or economic deprivation, for example). Instead it goes for the soft option of portraying all its neo-Nazi characters as idiots (though no more so than their equally dunderheaded opponents, and the dithery media resolutely plunging its head in the sand about the whole issue). To operate as a satire on neo-Nazism, shouldn’t “Heil” occasionally make us laugh at the characters because they’re neo-Nazis, not just because they’re dumb and make dumb-people mistakes?
The ensemble comedy features many different strands representing (too) many different aspects and points of view, for all of which Brϋggemann is simply dripping with disdain. But in brief: a respected black intellectual with a well-known anti-fascist stance (Jerry Hoffmann) is kidnapped by two bickering Neo-Nazi thugs (Daniel Zillmann and Jacob Matschenz), during which process he is hit on the head which renders him amnesiac, and prone to parroting whatever is said to him straight back. This is recognized as a great opportunity by the thugs’ boss, a far-right politician (the extremely Aryan-looking Benno Fuermann) who is involved in a turf war out in the right-wing hotbed of Prittwitz with another fascist politico, and nurses dreams of literally invading Poland, largely in order to win the favor of local committed neo-Nazi Doreen (Anna Brϋggemann).
Doreen is also the object of the affections of a bumbling police officer (Oliver Broeker), who has been chastised by the mayor for even using the word “Nazi” when filmed by an unscrupulous aspiring TV newsman, who embeds himself with the two thugs in an effort to get better footage. Meantime the pregnant girlfriend of the kidnappee tries to find him, only to see him on television babbling the right-wing nonsense being fed to him in a spectacular reversal of his previous politics which no one notices as odd, and which the liberals around him fall over themselves to try and account for. And that’s not even getting into the dumb rival politician’s logo problems, or the clueless anarcho-leftist group that turns up to disrupt right-wing gatherings or the frequent talk shows, lecture tours and other media events that weave in even more peripheral characters, so as to name-drop a few more issues: feminism, environmentalism, racism, intellectualism — everything gets a quick set up only to be immediately knocked down by Brϋggemann’s increasingly deranged yet decreasingly funny situations.
There are some barbs that land, just none of them on the real issues — more on their representations. So the media satire sections, in fairness, do add a little more to our understanding of the way the issue is portrayed by Germans, for German audiences. And speaking of, German audiences will undoubtedly get a great much more out of this overloaded, in-jokey film — many of the crammed-in details feel like arcane references to national and local politics that we don’t quite know enough about, and if we just about understand the quick gag about “Hey Jude” (Jude means Jew in German), it can only be imagined how many similar gags are lost in translation.
Brϋggemann replaces the finger-wagging of his last film with a kind of manic finger-pointing (“…and these guys are stupid, and these guys are stupid, and look, they’re dumb too, haha”) but in the end who is left but the director himself wheeling round in ever faster circles trying to point and laugh at every single other person who dares, however right- or wrong-headedly to actually hold an opinion on these divisive and difficult issues? Furthermore, satire and farce make uneasy bedfellows, and Brϋggemann is no ‘Dr Strangelove‘-era Kubrick able to wrangle the two impulses into a coherent whole. Resolution, of a sort, only occurs after repeated, numbing returns to the hit-them-on-the-head-and-they-become-pliable-zombies thing, a contrivance so silly it undermines any claim Brϋggemann might have toward making a serious point.
But perhaps he’d make no such claim, and only desires to provoke and shit-stir without the real bravery of supplying an alternative to the ideas and ideals he mocks. In fact perhaps here he’s neither wagging nor pointing his finger, but using an entirely different hand gesture: since one gets the feeling that Brϋggemann’s contempt for German society is powerful, indiscriminate and all-encompassing, perhaps he won’t be satisfied until he has gone around the country knocking on every citizen’s door to give them each, individually, the finger. [C+]