At only 66 minutes, Hitler’s Folly is mercifully brief, but I nearly noped out of it at the 45-minute mark. The conceit of this mockumentary, a puerile effort written and directed by the animator Bill Plympton (The Tune, Cheatin’), is that Hitler’s grand ambition was not world domination but a cartoon version of Wagner’s Ring cycle. In one of the film’s many unconvincingly faked “vintage” bits of footage, we see a man being interviewed, identified as an inmate at a concentration camp. The man wants us to know that the camps were misunderstood: They were workplaces for people who were laboring on Hitler’s epic cartoon, and they were so named because everyone had to concentrate very hard on their work. That’s when I almost found something better to do.
But I stuck it out, not that it improved much. There was one joke that almost got a faint chuckle out of me, when Hitler, after the war, finds a job at an ad agency and invents telemarketing. But for the most part the “satire” is terribly tired when it isn’t tone-deaf. We know, of course, that Hitler was a frustrated artist; this was the subject of a little-seen drama called Max, from 2002. Plympton has extrapolated this factoid into an oafish alternate history in which everything Hitler did was on behalf of his big artistic attempt starring his beloved character Downy Duck. There might be a whiff of satire in reimagining Hitler as a monomaniacal Disney, but very little of it has real-world resonance. We don’t, for instance, find many parallels between the two men.
If you want an alternate-history mockumentary about film, it’s hard to outdo Forgotten Silver, the brilliant little jape co-directed by Peter Jackson and Costa Botes that was so pristinely crafted it fooled the majority of its New Zealand TV audience. Hitler’s Folly isn’t nearly as ingenious; sometimes one suspects that the joke is actually how poorly the photo trickery is faked. At their best, mockumentaries — even if you recognize the actors in them, as with Christopher Guest’s films — have a grain of realism, a veneer of truth, that lulls one into acceptance of their reality. Plympton’s film, though, is too broad — too cartoonish, you could say — to be taken on any level other than a schoolboy riff on the theme of Hitler as artist.
The joke about harmless concentration camps may stick in your craw in a world where Holocaust deniers exist, and likewise, a film that gentles Hitler into a misunderstood cartoonist tends to trivialize the victims and survivors of the Nazi atrocities that Plympton passes off as a mission to bring a Wagner cartoon starring a duck to the world. In general, Plympton doesn’t earn the right to play with Nazi imagery this way, nor does he redeem his audacity with humor, much less wit. The Holocaust, I know, is not untouchable as a subject for dark comedy — the gold standard in this regard remains Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties. That film, however (appropriately) unpalatable, had a point and a point of view. Hitler’s Folly doesn’t. It’s a bad idea someone should’ve talked Plympton out of; it’s Plympton’s Folly.
The idea is that we’re seeing secret footage collected by an historian and entrusted to a documentary filmmaker (well-played by Twin Peaks’ Dana Ashbrook, who deserves better). A hidden locked box contains old video as well as brittle old Hitler sketches and priceless comic books, including the first issue of Captain America, with the famous cover of Cap punching out Hitler. Leaving aside the questions of whether Hitler would have kept artwork that disrespected him — and why Captain America is fighting Hitler in the first place, since in the film’s context all Hitler does is work on a movie — I wondered what the issue’s Jewish co-creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, both of whom also served in World War II, would have said about Plympton’s little jest. Streaming for free on Plympton’s website starting this week, Hitler’s Folly, I guess, is his Memorial Day gift to a demoralized nation. Gee, thanks, Bill.