“Hotel Lux” wants to be a lot of things: a side-splitting comedy about Stalin (with Hitler on the side), a grandiose Hollywood-style production from the big studio era, an Indiana Jones-like romp through history. After making his name with genial comedies set in East Germany, Leander Haussmann (“Sun Alley”) winds the clock back further, and while “Hotel Lux” isn’t a train wreck on the level of Oskar Roehler’s “Jew Suss,” neither is it original or especially inspired. Extravagant and in dubious taste, the pic is doing decent biz at home, but most international markets will be wary of a Nazi laffer.
Berlin, 1933: Apolitical ladies’ man Hans Zeisig (Michael Bully Herbig) and Jewish commie Siggi Meyer (Juergen Vogel) have a Stalin-Hitler act that slays ’em in the aisles. Three years later, Meyer’s gone into hiding and Zeisig isn’t having much fun with his Stalin number, especially with Nazi Kessel (Uwe-Dag Berlin) now in charge of the theater and pushing him to do an anti-Semitic parody. Instead, Zeisig dons Meyer’s Hitler outfit and performs a skit he knows will be his last.
Neither the first Stalin-Hitler act (very Mel Brooks, without the brilliant comic shock) nor Zeisig’s solo Hitler number (indebted of course to “The Great Dictator”) is especially funny, notwithstanding an audience’s legitimate desire to occasionally laugh at these figures. The problem lies in how the comedy is conceived: With Chaplin, there’s terror underneath every graceful comic movement, whereas Haussmann has nothing behind the buffoonery. Nazis chasing Zeisig down the street, shot like silent slapstick, is especially ill conceived.
Zeisig tries to get a visa to the U.S., convinced he’ll be a star in Hollywood, but wrangles only a fake Soviet passport. He arrives in Moscow at the Hotel Lux, where Comintern members are lodged in an atmosphere of mistrust.
There, he meets Nikolai Yezhov (Alexander Senderovich), the violent, diminutive chief of the secret police, who’s convinced the actor is Hitler’s personal astrologer, whom Stalin is expecting. Zeisig is assigned a translator, Clara (Thekla Reuten), real name Frida, a Meyer partisan whom Zeisig met back in ’33, and who tries to save him from an increasingly sticky situation. Then Stalin (Valery Grishko) arrives.
Unlike Dani Levy’s unsuccessful farce-drama hybrid “Mein Fuhrer,” “Hotel Lux” doesn’t try to be anything other than a comic caper. Yet without the underlying deadly seriousness so crucial to making the laughs cathartic, Haussmann’s Uncle Joe is merely a paranoid and superstitious fool, with an emphasis on the latter trait. An intelligent cackle at Stalin (or Hitler) would be a relief, but not when it sweeps away the monster within.
Further (minor) laughs are generated by labels identifying hotel guests who will later go on to become major figures in East Germany and other Soviet-bloc nations. If the history were completely fictitious (like a “Stargate” episode), the pic might make a diverting adventure-comedy romp, but Haussmann’s desire to have it all trips him up.
Luckily, Herbig has personality with a capital “P,” and the popular spoofer has great fun channeling the aura of stars from cinema’s past. The same can be said of Haussmann’s entire concept, utilizing devices from another era including elaborate studio sets, matte paintings, dolly shots and the like.
It’s playfully old-fashioned and visually pleasing, with kudos going to the stylish, self-consciously grandiose lensing by d.p. Hagen Bogdanski (“The Young Victoria”) and Uli Hanisch’s elaborate sets. Ralf Wengenmayr’s music tries too hard with a kind of symphonic accompaniment associated with pics from the 1940s, and his overripe compositions, like a cross between Max Steiner and John Williams, are excessive.