What if World War II leaders suddenly reappeared? Attempts to answer that question have produced box office hits in Germany and, most recently, in Italy. I‘d love to see filmmakers from Russia, Spain, the UK and the US tackle the subject.
German writer Timur Vermes’s novel “Look Who’s Back,” published in 2012, started it all. Made into a movie in 2015, the story of Adolf Hitler’s miraculous reappearance in modern Germany made $25.3 million at the box office, the second best result among German films that year. Last weekend, “He’s Back,” about Benito Mussolini, debuted as the third highest grossing movie in Italy.
In the Hitler novel and movie, Germans never quite believe in his return. He becomes popular as a comedian, which allows him to embark on a small-scale political career. The film contains secretly filmed footage of real Germans and Italians reacting spontaneously to “Hitler” and “Mussolini.”
While Germans displayed no affinity with their country’s former dictator, Italians often seemed nostalgic for theirs. Some even asked for selfies. A German would never give a Nazi salute upon seeing a Hitler lookalike, but it happens in the Italian movie.
Luca Minieri’s movie is timely because right-wing forces have a decent shot at taking over the Italian government in the coming election. Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League, said last month that some good things happened under fascism in Italy: Mussolini, for example, introduced pensions.
Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is making a comeback, also praised the achievements of Mussolini’s rule. Italy may soon ban the sale of Mussolini souvenirs (Nazi memorabilia have long been illegal in Germany), but it‘ll be much harder to banish fond memories of the dictator and his populist politics.
The difference between the German perception of Hitler and the milder attitude toward Mussolini in Italy goes back to the two countries’ post-World War II treatment of the past. Germany was forced by the war’s victors to pass through a harrowing process of denazification, and numerous Nazi crime sites were turned into memorials.
In Berlin, the memory of the Holocaust is inescapable. A high-ranking member of the Alternative for Germany party has complained about the large, grim Holocaust memorial at the very center of Berlin. But those kinds of reactions spark outrage among the rest of Germany’s population.
Italy avoided a similar reckoning, hiding behind comfortable comparisons between the Fascists and the more brutal Nazis. That has a political price: lower immunity against fascist comebacks.
Italy, of course, is not alone in this. Francisco Franco, who died peacefully of old age, lies buried under a 152-meter cross in Spain. Though a 2007 law ordered the removal of the symbols of his regime, many remain. A movie of Franco’s comeback to abolish the nation’s deep political divisions and “establish order”? I’d watch it, and not just for the resurrection scene.
In Russia, there has been a resurgence of the Stalin cult. Last year, a poll by the independent Levada Center revealed that a plurality of Russians consider the dictator their most outstanding compatriot of all time, ahead of President Vladimir Putin and Alexander Pushkin, the national poet.
His bust at the Kremlin wall, where he is buried, is always covered with fresh flowers for his birthday. Though the Stalin cult gets no official support from the Kremlin, there are no attempts to eradicate it, either. What would Stalin do if he came back to Putin’s Russia? Would he approve of the current authoritarian ruler’s saber-rattling and disapprove of his political repression as too subtle?
There are one or two film directors in Russia who could take up that challenge -- but their work wouldn’t necessarily be shown: A British director’s comedic take on the chaos after Stalin’s death is currently banned by the Russian culture ministry.
The comeback movies don‘t need to be limited to blood-soaked dictators like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Franco. Last year’s “Churchill” showed the British prime minister as a flawed but still great war leader. What would Churchill make of Brexit? He did call for a United States of Europe, though he also voiced support for immigration controls aimed at stopping “colored people” from taking advantage of the welfare state.
And what would Franklin D. Roosevelt, who famously warned Americans of a fifth column in their midst, make of today’s divided US? Would he, like Donald Trump, try to ban immigration from certain countries or round up Americans with certain backgrounds to prevent sabotage -- terrorism, as we would say today?
History laid plenty of traps for the losers of World War II, and also the winners. Vermes’ “Look Who’s Back” provides a good way to expose these traps -- and, it seems, sell a lot of movie tickets in the process.
By Leonid Bershidsky
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.