Josef Stalin is a paranoid thug who sets aside his pipe to smoke American Lucky Strike cigarettes in private and conducts top-secret meetings from his washroom in “Hotel Lux,” a German film poking fun at communism.
Director Leander Haussmann has found mirth in Marxism before: He made the popular comedy “Sonnenallee” (1999), portraying a group of young people growing up on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall in the 1970s.
Funny and fast-paced, his new movie, showing in cinemas across Germany, is a dark farce that relies heavily on fake facial hair and mistaken identities. The two protagonists are cabaret actors who portray Hitler and Stalin in a Berlin variety show. Their act is doomed as the Nazis come to power and the Jewish Hitler impersonator, Siggi Meyer (Juergen Vogel), joins the communists.
After he attacks the Nazi actor who plays the Jewish stereotype in the same cabaret -- on stage and in his Hitler uniform -- Meyer is forced to go underground. The apolitical Hans Zeisig (Michael Bully Herbig), the Stalin half of the act, flees in 1938. His goal is Hollywood.
He lands in Moscow with a forged passport, a fake beard, a host of exiled revolutionaries and Stalin’s unsavory henchmen in the rat-infested, treacherous, labyrinthine Hotel Lux.
The bleakly inhospitable hotel was a refuge for international communists seeking asylum, particularly Germans fleeing Hitler. Yet many died in the purges of 1936 to 1938. More high-ranking German communists were killed under Stalin than under Hitler.
The entire future politburo of East Germany is staying at the Hotel Lux, becoming the target for some merciless mocking by Haussmann, who grew up under that regime. Walter Ulbricht, the East German leader who later ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall, is shown sitting at a table, idly building a wall out of sugar lumps.
Stalin’s men mistake Zeisig for Hitler’s astrologer. As a matter of survival, he develops an expertise in tarot cards and learns fluent Russian, becoming the dictator’s adviser on all things star-related.
Apart from Zeisig, Meyer and a Dutch female revolutionary who provides romantic interest for Zeisig, Haussmann’s characters are largely historical figures. They include Nikolai Yezhov, a senior secret police official who served under Stalin during the Great Purge and was dubbed “the Poisonous Dwarf.”
It’s an odd, slightly disorientating combination: careful attention to historical detail of characters, setting and period and entirely fictitious, often ludicrous events.
“Sonnenallee” worked by showing the effects of communism on ordinary lives. The humor was gentler and less contrived, though still allowed serious points to be made.
“Hotel Lux” seeks to demystify Stalin and his thugs by poking fun at them. It squeezes black humor out of snitching kids loitering in the corridors of the hotel; out of an interpreter shot because Stalin wants a one-on-one discussion, and out of bloodthirsty torturers donning slippers to spare the floors of the dictator’s palatial home.
Mostly the humor works. Occasionally, it feels too forced.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
To contact the writer on this review: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.