Comedy and the Holocaust is not exactly an easy line to tread. It requires not only an expert comedic craftsman, but someone who is adept at pathos and able to build from a deep understanding of the event. Mel Brooks was a master of it, being incredibly careful to never make fun of the event itself, only the Nazis and of course, Hitler. Which begs the question - does Leon Prudovsky ('Five Hours from Paris') have the guile and perhaps even more importantly the reason, to create a comedic drama of an odd-couple neighbourly spat in his film, 'My Neighbour Adolf'?
The film opens with Marek Polsky (David Hayman, 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas') and his family in Poland in 1933, enjoying a game of chess, and gathering all together for a family photo - none the wiser of the fate they all face. Cut to Columbia in 1960, and Mr Polsky now lives a reclusive life in the mountain ranges, seemingly a shadow of his former self and completely isolated from anyone or anything that may present an annoyance to an already fragile demeanour. The only thing Mr Polsky cares about are his black roses, a reminder of the love he shared for his wife, and a symbol of a life that has long been upended. So, when new neighbour Mr Herzog (Udo Kier, 'Melancholia', 'Suspiria') moves in next door, Polsky is more than aggravated. It's enough that Herzog is a "kraut", but to then move his fence over a few meters onto Polsky's side thus rendering his beloved roses unattainable, Polsky presents as a more than disgruntled figure.
A neighbourly spat ensues, filled with aggression, pettiness and dog shit. However, this feud pales in comparison to when Polsky first gets a look at this mysterious figure's eyes - eyes he will never forget, eyes that unmistakably belong to none other than Adolf Hitler. Convinced his new neighbour is his sworn enemy and getting no help from the Israeli embassy, Polsky takes it upon himself to gather enough incriminating evidence to put "Hitler" away, and get revenge on the man who destroyed his life.
Something that Polsky did not account for is that through getting closer to his neighbour as an attempt to sabotage, an unexpected friendship finds its way to the fore. As they say, keep your friends close and your enemies closer, but rarely has that expression involved potentially being neighbours with the most evil man on the planet.
'My Neighbour Adolf' has a really interesting premise, taking elements of 'Boys from Brazil' and mixing it with a pinch of 'Operation Finale' and a dash of 'Bad Neighbours'; it's certainly a combination I wasn't expecting. This film is predominately set up as a comedy - or rather a tragic comedy - about quarrelling neighbours fighting about land titles and pets, but there is real and deep horrific trauma at the base of this, and that ultimately results in a film that flirts with discomfort.
This is tonally a very peculiar film. Polsky's distress is real, and Hayman does a decent job of presenting a man who lives with that baggage, but Prudovksy also presents him as an old and senile buffoon in the eyes of the Israeli intelligence. I'm just not sure you can have your cake and eat it too, and I don't feel that the tonal shifts were all that well-handled. This is a difficult subject matter, and there is absolutely no harm at dealing with trauma with comedy, but this isn't it.
I'm just not sure you can have your cake and eat it too, and I don't feel that the tonal shifts were all that well-handled.
I wouldn't go as far as to label 'My Neighbour Adolf' as tone deaf, because it tries very hard - and sometimes achieves - to elicit sympathy and there is no evidence to suggest for one moment that Prudovsky has the intention to make a mockery of the traumatic experiences. At no point is there a finger pointed towards the Holocaust for a laugh, but channelling the comedy through Polsky results in his belittlement, and I found myself more frustrated than sympathetic for that.
Both leads are very solid and do a lot with what they've been given. Neither of these are easy roles, but Kier in particular plays to the suspense and fear really well. While audiences don't exactly know who Herzog is, one thing for certain is that he can certainly pass for the Fuhrer.
The friendship that Herzog and Polsky strike up is conjured with a game of chess. One game becomes two, two games become an ongoing competition, and that naturally becomes an afternoon where Polsky is having his portrait painted on his neighbour's lawn. If he weren't potentially Hitler, it would almost be sweet. And I think this is my main issue with this film. I completely see what Prudovsky is going for and I have no problem with it, but I think from a personal perspective I just couldn't wrap my head around it. 'My Neighbour Adolf' struggles with the tonal tightrope and gets nowhere near the required therapeutic unravelling that is required for a film of this subject. There was potential here of showcasing a man, stuck with his mortal enemy as a neighbour, and trying to unravel the pain and suffering this must be causing him, but this isn't realised nearly to the level it could be. I'm not entirely sure what the purpose of this film is or what it aims to achieve, but there is sweetness, there is comedy, and although fairly surface level, there is the insight into trauma.
Without knowing exactly what it wants to be, it's hard to say 'My Neighbour Adolf' achieved what it set out to do, but as a mystery with an interesting comedic twist and a watchable 90 minutes, go in with low expectations and it may suit your needs.