German director Dietrich Brüggemann took the arthouse world by storm last year with his fourth feature, Stations of the Cross (2014) – a restrained, rigorously formalist study of religious fanaticism in present-day Germany realised in fourteen still frames.
Brüggemann’s follow-up couldn’t have been any different: an archaic anti-Nazi comedy with none of the aesthetic and narrative exactitude widely celebrated by critics. Heil (2015) is a completely different monster: a broad cultural satire fashioned as a b-comedy and seeping with disdain towards a hypocritical society failing to wipe out the traces of its heinous past. It’s a strange, exhausting work that doesn’t always hit the mark.
Heil is set in the small German town of Prittwitz where Nazism is rampant but never acknowledged or confronted by the authorities in order not to tarnish the province’s reputation. Upon his arrival to town for a seminar, celebrated young African-German intellectual Sebastian Klein (Jerry Hoffmann) is kidnapped by ultra right-wing leader and aspirant führer Sven (Benno Fuermann) who brainwashes him with a simple blow to the head and transforms him into a puppet parroting his nonsensical anti- immigrant polemics. Much to the surprise of everyone, Sebastian’s racist diatribes hit a chord with cultural commentators and political leaders alike, swiftly shattering the façade.
Brüggemann populates his film with a myriad of buffoons from both the right and the left: a Laurel and Hardy-like informants; a right-wing party leader striving for hipness; a hapless cop attempting to impress his aggressive Arian object of affection; a clueless, gold-draped rapper; an overachieving sportsman; a thrill-seeking news editor. No character is sympathetic. In maintaining the outlandish tone of the film, Brüggemann resorts to archetypes to augment his well-delineated message. As potent and pressing as the discourse may be, his strategy eliminates any complexity from a discourse that often feels oversimplified. Heil works best in tackling the media and the fake culture of political correctness. Before his brainwashing, Sebastian functions as a mere cog in a system built on static ideologies adopted to preserve the status quo. He’s the shiny face of a new Germany built on a false notions of integration, a constant figure thrust in numberless inert panel discussions preaching social harmony to the converted. He’s the proof that Merkel’s controversial 2010 comments about the failure of multiculturalism were miscalculated.
The media doesn’t really offer profound perspectives on issues of the day; it rather uses a constantly fixed set of pundits to give the illusion of diversity, when what they always end up presenting is a pedantic dialogue designed to fill in the vacant airtime. The satire aspect of the film is thus more potent, and more fitting, than the clumsily executed slapstick set-pieces that quickly lose steam, even as Brüggemann cranks up the comedy tempo. The conceit is rather daring and certainly more urgent than that of his debut effort, yet you just wish he would’ve imposed more discipline on both the narrative and sloppy look of the film. Heil is a messy movie that will be regarded as a step down from Stations of the Cross, a prestige piece more in tune with festival preferences. Yet in spite of its serious flaws, Heil is the fresher, more relevant work; an unflattering, hyper-portrait of a Germany rarely depicted on screen.
The Karlovy Vary Film Festival takes place from 3-11 July 2015 in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic. For more of our coverage, follow this link.