It feels more than a little odd to use “comedy” and “Hitler” in the same sentence, for reasons that should be obvious. However, like JoJo Rabbit, Life is Beautiful, and others before it, My Neighbor Adolf attempts the unenviable (and possibly irresponsible) task of drawing out the light from one of the world’s darkest periods. The result is a confused, somewhat uncomfortable mixed bag. While the film is well written and even heart-warming at times, it is punctuated by a sense of unease, encouraging one to wonder “why this person, why this topic, and why now?”
Mr Polsky (David Hayman) is a grouchy old man living in South America in the 1960s. His demeanour becomes understandable as it is quickly revealed that he’s a holocaust survivor, the sole survivor of his family, in fact. His tired, if peaceful, existence is immeasurably threatened by the arrival of Mr Herzog (Udo Kier), Polsky’s new next-door neighbour and a secretive German who enjoys painting and cares immensely for his German Shepherd dog, Wolfie. A chance encounter where he looks into Herzog’s eyes seemingly confirms it for Polsky: he is living next door to a profoundly not-dead Adolf Hitler. Now it’s up to him to prove it and bring the former dictator to justice.
It’s likely that even reading that brief synopsis will elicit a squirm or cringe. My Neighbor Adolf enters bold territory as its setting and central conceit seem to make a mockery of the horrors of WWII. While Hayman’s Polsky is undeniably traumatised by the events of the holocaust, his doddery pottering in trying to prove Herzog is Hitler jars uncomfortably with his breakdown in the latter half of the film. Though it becomes clear there is more to Herzog’s story than meets the eye, framing their conflict as a war of elderly neighbours being petty to one another undercuts the severity of Polsky’s (very real) situation.
By using the film’s central motif of chess as its anchor point, My Neighbor Adolf seems more comfortable as a battle of wits, drawing humour from the proposed ridiculousness of the situation and Polsky’s discomfort in partaking. Perhaps most egregiously, while undeniably framing Hitler as the despicable villain he was, the film at times feels like an “interesting facts about” list; quite the opposite of a passionate admonishment of his atrocities.
Yet, if one is able to put their discomfort aside for a moment, there is a bizarrely heart-warming story about two elderly men learning to work past their trauma. Needless to say, Herzog is not who Polsky thinks he is, and the film is all the better for it. Yet, one has to wonder why the addition of Hitler was a necessity at all, bar allowing director Leon Prudovsky to give the film the most sensationalist title possible. The meat of the story revolves around letting go of the past and learning to form human connections again, even with those most alien to us. Had the Hitler plot been dropped and the film focused its comedy on the miscommunication and eventual friendship between these two men, it could have been a highly effective comedy-drama.
Once the film reveals its true nature, it becomes far easier to appreciate the artistic talent on display, safe from the unwelcome discomfort of wondering just how far Prudovsky’s black sense of humour will veer into real world territory. Both Hayman and Kier deliver commendable performances, balancing a dry, exhausted wit with genuine despair that demonstrates a deep understanding of their characters’ strife. While the often bubbly soundtrack is slightly out of place, the film’s washed out colour palette perfectly epitomises the tiredness of its two central players.
Overall, My Neighbor Adolf is a shockingly warm look at aging, grief, and how we form human connections. Its central conceit is ironically its weakest element, and the film is by far at its best when Kier and Hayman are simply talking and when the ridiculous pretence of one of history’s most evil men still being alive is thoroughly discarded. Regrettably, this comes an hour too late and when paired with generally tasteless humour, My Neighbor Adolf remains an awkwarding watch for most of its runtime.
Signature Entertainment presents My Neighbor Adolf in UK Cinemas 4th November and Digital Platforms 14th November