In “My Neighbor Adolf,” a Polish Holocaust survivor living in South America suspects that the belligerent German who’s just moved in next door could be none other than der Führer himself. How could that be? Hitler shot himself in his bunker at the end of the war. Or did he? Director Leon Prudovsky’s middling mind game pits David Hayman and prolific German character actor Udo Kier against one another in what could have been a sly, “Sleuth”-style two-hander. But the tonally uneven movie isn’t prepared for its own premise: If the man’s hunch is correct, what are the implications of making friends/enemies with evil?
Years earlier, Malek Polsky (Hayman) sat opposite Hitler at the World Chess Championship in Berlin. He swears he’d recognize “those dead blue eyes” anywhere — and now they’re staring right back at him over the rickety wooden fence that separates their properties. (The movie takes place in 1960, the year Israel captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina.) To prove his theory, Polsky must trick this suspicious new neighbor (Kier), who calls himself “Herman Herzog,” into revealing his secret past.
This isn’t the first time Udo Kier has played someone who might be Adolf Hitler. In 2002’s bizarre half-hour short “Mrs. Meitlemeihr,” Kier demonstrates how Hitler might try to conceal himself in London, had he survived the war: by disguising himself in drag. In two deliberately campy, Z-grade Nazis-on-the-moon “Iron Sky” satires, he Sieg-heils in space. And in the upcoming second season of Amazon Prime’s “Hunters,” Kier appears as the world’s most notorious war criminal, standing trial at last.
It’s the fate of practically all German actors in Hollywood that they are cast as Nazis (or worse, if you consider the sadistic villain he played in “Dragged Across Concrete”). Kier — who began his career embodying Baron Frankenstein and Count Dracula in a pair of Andy Warhol-produced sexploitation classics — isn’t afraid to portray cinema’s darkest characters. But is Herr Herzog really Adolf Hitler? That’s the million-dollar question in a movie that would have been better off cashing smaller checks.
With financing from Israel, Poland and Colombia, this odd multilingual affair has the grimy, gray look of early-aughts genre films, which has the weird effect of making Polsky’s life all these years after the war look as grim as most Holocaust movies. Cinematographer Radek Ladczuk’s palette is reduced nearly to black and white, right down to Polsky’s prized roses: rare beauties with petals the color of pure carbon.
Tending these plants is practically the only pleasure he takes in life, having lost his family to the Nazis all those years ago — so it’s no surprise he’s upset when a lawyer (Olivia Silhavy) with a thick German accent appears at his door, looking to rent the neighboring property for a “very distinguished gentleman.” The new tenant (played by Kier in a tacked-on Leo Tolstoy beard) owns a German shepherd that immediately crosses into Polsky’s garden and defecates on his flowers.
At times, “My Neighbor Adolf” seems quite refined in its treatment of the subject (consider the oblique way Polsky’s concentration camp history is revealed), while at others, the film stoops to weird “Home Alone”-level gags, as when Polsky seeks revenge by trying to urinate on Herzog’s car — only, his bladder is so unreliable, he’s unable to follow through on his plan. Stranger still, after reading up on Hitler’s defining characteristics, Polsky determines to check whether Herzog has just one testicle, as Hitler reportedly did.
Such questionable-taste touches aside, the film unfolds like an earnest, low-rent “Rear Window,” with Polsky spying on Herzog from his upstairs window through a telephoto lens, collecting evidence for the no-help authorities. After his neighbor breaks out a chess board, Polsky suggests that they play together … again. These sessions bring the two strangers closer, resulting in an uneasy kinship that complicates their dynamic, while giving both actors additional dimensions to explore in the too-lean script.
After drawing out the “is he or isn’t he?” question for more than an hour, Prudovsky and co-writer Dmitry Malinsky have a logical explanation for Herzog’s backstory, but it’s a serious letdown compared with over-the-top Nazi-in-hiding thrillers like “Marathon Man” and “Apt Pupil.” This project is more psychological than suspense-driven in nature, which is admirable, if disappointing in the end. Instead of escalating to a dramatic and potentially violent confrontation, the film seeks to offer its protagonists some respite from the trauma each has experienced — to bury the past. Would that it were so simple.