The day after press screening of Hotel Lux, a sparkling German comedy set in 1933, at the real-life communist bolt-hole of the same name, I was lucky enough to bag a round table interview with the principle cast and director, Leander Haussmann. Thekla Reuten explained that 'It’s very much about time that we tell the story that Hitler and Stalin are assholes to the same degree.' This is a debatable claim, even if we do agree that he was one of history's most vicious tyrants: estimates for the number of deaths Stalin was responsible for range from as low as only three million to as high as 60 million, while Hitler's fascist fury claimed around 17 million victims. What is true is that we know all about Hitler; we know what he looks like, how he spoke, what he thought, and the deadly effects of his ideology. Meanwhile, how many of us know about the Great Purge, or 'population transfer', surely the most chilling euphemism for deportation there is? 'Also our producers said that often the last century has been all about Hitler, and his deeds,' Reuten explained. 'A lot of light has been shone on him, and Stalin has been hidden, put away.' It can be safely said then, that Hotel Lux goes where other films dare not, stripping Stalin down to his pants and putting Soviet Communism on the bloc. It's also very, very funny.
We begin with two young comedians, apolitical dreamer Hans Zeisig (Michael Bully Herbig) and Siggi Meyer (Jurgen Vogel), who have a solid gig in a Berlin cabaret club with their Hitler and Stalin double act. Through Meyer, who is active in the Communist Party, Zeisig meets Frieda (Reuten), a sultry Dutch resistance fighter. Hitler has just taken power, and the new regime doesn't take too kindly to dissenters: Meyer, who performs as the Fuhrer, is roughed up by Nazi thugs.
By the time Zeisig arrives however, it has become is a rat-infested pit for terrified, trapped foreigners
He goes underground, and soon Zeisig is forced to do the same, after he takes his friend's role and savages Hitler in front of a stunned crowd of uniformed Nazis. He takes a secret identity and ends up in Moscow ('you'll be safe there', says the club's manager. 'they're anti-fascist'), where he finds himself at the Lux, surrounded by German communists in exile – including Frieda – many of whom would go on to become big players in the DDR (East Germany, to you and me). Built as a luxury hotel in 1911 by the son of a well-known Moscow baker, the Lux was seized by the Bolsheviks during the October Revolution and become the home of the Communist International, where delegates from around the world would come to stay and discuss the revolution. By the time Zeisig arrives however, it has become is a rat-infested pit for terrified, trapped foreigners, all of whom live in fear of being outed as a hated Trotskyist. Under intense psychological pressure to keep their dear leader happy, everyone spies on everyone else, and conversations are frequently carried out with the water running so as to get around the bugs, which are planted everywhere. During Stalin's purges the Lux's residents were targeted as potential spies, and conditions were grim: there was only hot water twice a week and rats were everywhere. 'I grew up in Moscow, in the centre of power, and state and non-state criminality, Gorky Street, Hotel Lux,' wrote former resident Rolf Schälike, who spent his childhood there. 'It was the years 1938–1946. Around us too, there was juvenile violence. We played “partisan and German fascists”... and one kid in our group was hanged – for fun... There were frequent battles with iron bands with the kids from the neighboring building.'
Many key figures from Stalin's reign of terror are viciously lampooned, including Uncle Joe himself
Grim times, you might think, the kind of thing that would be better suited to a History Channel documentary, or a The Lives Of Others-style drama. Instead Haussmann has managed to coax out one of the finest film comedies of the century, dealing with the squalor and terror through a sweet love story between Zeisig and Frieda, both played immaculately by Herbig and Reuten. Herbig, who is a hugely popular comedian in Germany, is a revelation as the romantic dreamer who wants his shot in Hollywood, while Reuten plays the role of straight man to perfection. Many key figures from Stalin's reign of terror are viciously lampooned, including Uncle Joe himself, who mistakes Zeisig for Hitler's personal astrologist, and asks him to become his advisor. We see him in various states of paranoid rage and fear, as well as in his pants; in short, he's made to look like a buffoon. There's a good reason for this too; Haussmann grew in East Germany, and has a serious bone to pick with not just Stalin, but Communism as a philosophy. He made it very clear in the interview that he believes it to be entirely unworkable, and that in the human mind individual needs trump those of the group: 'I don’t believe that heroes exist: real heroes who want to change the world without their own interests. I believe in the importance of own interests. My interest (in the film) is in the man looking for his personal happiness.' Zeisig, described as a 'coward and proud of it', has no interest whatsoever in the proletariat struggle, and is our hero in this film, making him apolitical, in a political kind of way.
The three of them find themselves in a number of ridiculous situations, culminating in an ending so daft it would make Brian Rix blush.
Early on becomes clear that one way or another Zeisig, Frieda and Meyer will have to find their way out of the Hotel, and beyond the borders of the USSR, and it's from here that the tension and laughs are ramped up. The three of them find themselves in a number of ridiculous situations, culminating in an ending so daft it would make Brian Rix blush. Along the way some there are some superb set pieces and sight gags (do not watch the trailer, it will ruin one of the best), as well as some moments of high tension. But despite being crammed with gags, one-liners and slapstick, no-one knowingly hams it up for the camera, as has become the style for Hollywood comedies. Instead each role is played 100 per cent straight, grounding the comedy in reality and rendering the tragedy all the more tragic. 'One of the things that I’ve learned,' explained Reuten, 'is that to play a funny part you have to play it as sincere as you can, otherwise it will never be funny.' Haussmann took the same approach with the script and his direction, and together they've created one of the funniest, most heart-warming comedies you're likely to see for a long time. At the time of writing the film didn't have a deal for distribution in the UK, but hopefully that will change: frankly any film in which Joseph Stalin opines 'I wish we were friends, Hitler and me...' is always going to be a winner.
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