QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM LOCARNO
If poetry is impossible after Auschwitz – as Theodor Adorno maybe said – what about feel good comedies? What about feel good comedies about Hitler? We’ve had Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning but deeply immoral Life Is Beautiful (1997) and the more successful black comedy of Radu Mihaileanu’s Train of Life (1998), which to be fair didn’t aim for the feel good component. If we can go way back, Ernst Lubitsch perhaps was most effective with To Be or Not to Be in 1942 – ‘we do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping’ – but that was before the horrors were fully comprehended.
A Jewish family are taking a photographic portrait in the garden before the outbreak of the Second World War. They will soon be exterminated, with one exception. Now Polsky (David Hayman) lives in Columbia and it is May 1960. Adolf Eichmann has just been abducted from Argentina and flown to stand trial in Israel. At the same time, a mysterious new neighbour, Mr Herzog (Udo Kier) moves into the house next door. Polsky is soon convinced that Herzog is non other than Adolf Hitler, who he once met during a chess tournament. When the local Israeli embassy appears uninterested in his claims, Polsky sets about gathering the evidence himself, spying on his neighbour and taking surreptitious photographs. In order to get closer and by doing so get his incontrovertible proof, Polsky finds himself actually getting closer to his would be enemy and reluctantly sympathising with the old man who is as cantankerous as he is.
Like JoJo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, 2019) before it, Leon Prudovsky’s film My Neighbour Adolf is offensive in its inoffensiveness. There are so many things wrong with this film but lets get some of the basics out of the way. The basic premise: why would someone in hiding choose a house which is overlooked by another so closely when there are plenty of options in rural Columbia? The screenplay is littered with anachronisms and the main characters speak with heavy accents. The look of the film has that dog turd brown that stands for period these days and the story plods on with a series of doorbell rings as we go from one house to the other and back. Worse still is the bromance that progresses via a series of cliched stages: the arguments, the grudging respect, the getting drunk together, the mutual admiration of a fraulein and the final revelations that draws some pretty disgraceful false equivalency between well I don’t want to spoil it. Or maybe I do.
There was some controversy about the fact that the Rabinovich Foundation – which partly funded the film – was obliging filmmakers to sign a contract agreeing that their films would not any message that denied the “existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state”. Locarno was called on to deny the film a position in the competition and Locarno, rightly, declined. Ultimately though, the damage this film ought to have been more controversial for the way it isn’t controversial: for the way it turns the Holocaust into a backstory to a lame grumpy old men comedy. And that’s the problem in the end. This just isn’t funny. Not remotely. It aims for gentle laughter and the gray pound: it Exotic Marigold Hotels the Holocaust. Just think about that for a second.
My Neighbor Adolf premiered at the 75th Locarno Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. It opens the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.