Issue 24 (2009)
Marius Vaisberg: Hitler Kaput! (Gitler kaput!, 2008)
reviewed by Elena Prokhorova © 2009
Released in September 2008, Hitler Kaput! received mostly negative reviews from the press, outraged WWII veterans, but raked in over $5 million in the first week of its run, more than three times what Hollywood blockbuster Journey to the Center of the Earth (Eric Brevig, 2008) made during the same time period. The director Marius Balchunas-Vaisberg (who skipped the Lithuanian part of his last name for the film’s credits) studied at the USC School of Cinema and Television and made two films in the US  before, together with the producer Sergei Livnev, taking on Hitler Kaput—a parody of the Soviet television series Seventeen Moments of Spring (17 mgnovenii vesny, Tat’iana Lioznova, 1973). The latter, which had long since become a cult production in Russia, is the story of a Soviet super spy, Stirlitz, who infiltrated the highest echelons of power in Nazi Germany and subverted the Third Reich’s operations in the last months of WWII. In Hitler Kaput!, Soviet secret agent Shura Osechkin-Shurenberg (Pavel Derevianko) and his Russian radio operator Zina (Anna Semenovich) do the same in Berlin filled with drug addicts, nitwits and partying SS soldiers.
According to Veisberg, his inspiration for the film comes from Mel Brooks and David Zucker’s The Naked Gun films(1988, 1991). Indeed, Hitler Kaput is as irreverent towards its Soviet prototype as it is towards Russia’s major sacred cow—the heroic myth of the Great Patriotic War. This, however, is not enough for a good movie and, compared to both its Hollywood models and the Soviet target, Hitler Kaput! falls short. The first impression of Hitler Kaput! as credits flash on the screen, framed by a heart-shaped wreath of roses, is “this can’t be good.” Half of Russia’s glamour circuit is here, complete with the rap star Timati and the society-cum-scandal celebrity Kseniia Sobchak. The other half of the cast is composed of stars of Russian comic television shows Full House (Anshlag) and Our Town (Gorodok). The second impression takes the sense of chaos up a notch: secure in the conviction that the viewers know the premise of Seventeen Moments of Spring and are savvy both in the new Russian slang and the “cool scene” (tusovka), the filmmakers forgo any narrative continuity (no script, no story) or real acting (film without actors). The source of jokes is the mise-en-scène—an astounding amount of Nazi paraphernalia, a sea of swastikas, every inch of the screen dressed in red, black and white.
In the absence of a story line, all we get is a concentrated recipe of Putin-television: German-clad Russian pop-culture stars spinning (literally) to a pastiche of “favorite songs about main things”: from Britney Spears’s “Oops, I did it again” performed by Max Rabe, the male lead of the German Palast Orchestra, to the Soviet/Russian national anthem in German to the Leningrad’s song “Manager”—about the hardships of working in the offices of the Third Reich. Many Russian reviews cheered the casting of Kseniia Sobchak, a Paris Hilton wannabe, as Eva Braun: peeling potatoes for the Führer, begging him for a vacation in Dubai, and then writhing on the floor, gagged with that same potato.
The one successful jibe in the film has to do with Stirlitz’s nostalgia for Russia—a central but understated motif in the Soviet series. In contrast, Shurenberg’s Berlin home is fully equipped for a nostalgic agent: a bathhouse with birch tree twigs, an ice hole for an invigorating dive, television broadcast of the Swan Lake. Best of all, a secret passage opens into a country idyll with peaceful peasants, haystacks, and fields as far as an eye can see. A Soviet-model fridge with ice-cold vodka is just an icing on the cake. The first time this paradise appears in the film, it is part of the line of attractions visualizing Stirlitz jokes. The second time its use is more subtle. After escaping from the Gestapo, Shurenberg and Zina, dressed as Hitler and Eva Braun, try to cross the front line but narrowly escape with their lives when they see a poster behind the Soviet customs officer denouncing them as enemies of the people. Chased by both Germans and Soviets, they escape through the Russian field in the heart of Berlin. The scene is vaguely reminiscent of the ending of Modern Times (Charles Chaplin, 1936)—two human beings escaping the system and modernity gone berserk. Compared to the rest of the film, with its barrage of overused references to The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999) and other action thrillers, the ending of Hitler Kaput is smart and almost human.
Seventeen Moments of course offers ample material for parody. The distinctive feature of the series is its intellectual protagonist who defeats the enemy through the sheer power of his analytical mind. The result is an impossibly slow pace of action. Hitler Kaput! shrinks thirteen hours of thinking into ninety minutes of doing. Everything that was still, monumental and frozen is now moving, singing, kicking. Thank God for the narrator who keeps us abreast, explaining that Shurenburg has to attend Nazi parties as a show of loyalty, or that the bosomy beauty dropped from the airplane is the Soviet radio operator Zina. This is perhaps the film’s biggest paradox: despite its slapstick pretenses it is completely impotent as a visual text. Both its material and its gags come from verbal or extra-textual sources: jokes about Stirlitz, Russian slang and cultural clichés, television simulacra of high-end parties, and banal stand-up comic routines.
Hitler Kaput is a bad film. The problem is not that it has no story, but that it does not know what to do with the material it has. The scene of the raving maniac Hitler demonstrating on the map the inevitable defeat of the Russians with the help of a good kilogram of potatoes (a quote from the popular 1934 Civil War film Chapaev by Georgii and Sergei Vasil’ev) is cute; watching Hitler destroy the “Russian potatoes” in a lengthy scene and then the replay ofthe entire scene as performed by Shurenberg is tedious. When a German traffic cop stops Shurenberg’s car, the hapless agent shows him his ID which reads “The Distinguished Spy of the USSR” before replacing it with the correct one, “The Distinguished Spy of the Third Reich.” The problem is resolved with a bribe paid in dollars—a situation as familiar (and thus appealing) to contemporary Russian audiences as endless discussions of deficit consumer goods were to the audiences of Seventeen Moments. But when the cop stops the agent again and gives him a sobriety test lasting three minutes, it becomes boring.
There is nothing worse for an absurdist comedy than boredom. Russian cinema can boast very few cinematic spoofs and even fewer good ones (Leonid Gaidai’s 1968 Diamond Arm is mentioned nostalgically in many reviews, such as Stepnova). Hitler Kaput is not one of those, and Veisberg’s upcoming Love in the Big City featuring Philipp Kirkorov as St. Valentine does not inspire much hope either.
On the other hand, Hitler Kaput! became a two-sided social phenomenon. One side was expected. By treating irreverently the Great Patriotic War the film could not but touch on Russia’s sore spot. Both Veisberg and Livnev say they expected the public outrage and this is precisely why they made the film: to fight the absurd nostalgia for the war; “not to make light of World War II but rather of ‘how the war was actually sold by the Communists to the masses’” (qtd in Barry). The reaction was instantaneous, especially because the film’s advertising decorated Russian cities in the colors of the Third Reich. The organization “Communists of St. Petersburg and Leningrad Region” demanded from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation and the Committee on Culture of St. Petersburg to stop the “amoral and provocative” film from being released and the film crew from further working in the Russian film industry. Not only does this “filmic sabotage” (kinodiversiia) inflict damage to the health and morale of war veterans, but it also insults such masterpieces as Seventeen Moments of Spring, Ballad of a Soldier, and Liberation.
Herr Vaisberg and the entire crew hold nothing sacred—in their sick mind a Soviet female agent enters into an intimate relationship with a fascist woman, takes a bath with her, copulates with an entire file of SS-soldiers, but this could never have happened in the life of a Soviet woman. (“Komunisty…”)
The conclusion of this diatribe is a good match to the film’s own absurdity. But the film’s poking at the current Russian obsession with GPW mythology earned it reviews in The New York Times, The Guardian, and Moscow News.
The other way Hitler Kaput! could been interpreted is as an (unintentional?) exposure of the Putin-era culture which produced it, just like Seventeen Moments of Spring commented (unintentionally) on the Brezhnev-era society. A review in the entertainment bi-weekly Afisha suggests that Hitler Kaput! despite itself drew a ruthless portrait of “the Putin Reich.” The familiar signs and contemporary Russian lingo are
gleefully decorated with swastikas, zig-heils and SS skull rings; no matter that everything else in the film falls apart: the [Russian TV stars] wear the SS uniform as if they were born in it… Slips of the tongue do not lie. An idiot is the best medium to communicate with the collective unconscious. And if someone really wants to know the long-term direction of the country, it’s worth buying a ticket to Hitler Kaput! and peer into the face of the actor Gal’tsev [who plays the chief of the Gestapo Müller.-E.P.] (Volobuev 97)
Russians are watching. On January 31, 2009 anti-government demonstrators in Vladivostok held up signs “Putler Kaput!” (“KPRF…”). Traditions die hard, and cinema in Russia has always been more than entertainment. Hitler Kaput! may be nothing more than cinematic hooliganism, but it does make a girl think. After all, Sideburns (Iurii Mamin 1990) proved to be visionary.
College of William and Mary
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1]Vaisberg’s 2006 The Elder Son is based on Aleksandr Vampilov’s play. Vampilov’s widow claimed that the permission to use the play was acquired under false pretenses: as material for a student project.
“Kommunisty skazali ‘kaput’ fil’mu “Gitler Kaput.”
“KPRF i TIGR zapodozrili v ekstremizme za plakat ‘Putler kaput!’”, Obshchaia gazeta 11 March 2009.
Barry, Ellen “A Spoof Stars a Bumbling Spy, but Many Russian Moviegoers Aren’t Laughing”; The New York Times, 22 September 2008.
Stepnova, Svetlana, “Semnadtsat’ mgnovenii prikolov”
Volobuev, Roman, “Kak nam obustroit’ Rossiiu: ‘Gitler kaput!—avtoportret natsii.” Afisha 16 (2008): pp. 96-97.
Hitler Kaput!, Russia, 2008
Color, 90 min
Director: Marius Veisberg
Script: Marius Veisberg
Camera: Irek Hartowicz
Design: Aleksei Levchenko, Mikhail Levchenko
Costume Design: Lidiia Nesterova
Original Music: Vladimir Saiko
Cast: Pavel Derevianko, Anna Semenovich, Iurii Gal’tsev, Iurii Stoianov, Evelina Bledans, Mikhail Krylov, Il’ia Oleinikov, Timati, Kseniia Sobchak
Producer: Sergei Livnev
Production: Leopolis; Central Partnership
Marius Vaisberg: Hitler Kaput! (Gitler kaput!, 2008)
reviewed by Elena Prokhorova © 2009