From the Small Screen to the Big Screen - German Comedy At the Beginning of the 21st Century
by Rainer Dick
As soon as German producers have made a film comedy which is halfway successful, the press and film industry always start to proclaim the supposed return of an allegedly long neglected genre. Declarations announcing the renaissance of our film comedy are as numerous as commonly heard statements, which assert that Germans have no sense of humor. The fact is, of course, that there have always been German films aiming to make their audiences laugh. Yet, the individual artistic, dramaturgical, directorial and acting qualities are not taken into account by this assertion, neither are questions concerning the quality of comedy. Right at the beginning of the 21st century, film comedy "made in Germany" is booming, and it's noteworthy that nearly all exponents of this cheerful trade are recruited from television.
Ever since the emergence of sound film, there has been a continuing interaction between radio and cinema: not only were popular hits disseminated through both mediums, but also were well known radio humorists and comedians brought in front of the film camera. Karl Valentin probably owed much of his national popularity rather to his records than to the short films based on his theater sketches, which were cranked out by largely uninterested filmmakers. The cinema of the 1930s used the enormous popularity of the famous voice imitator and parody artist Ludwig Manfred Lommel, as well as instrumentalizing the fame of Heinz Erhardt after the war. This method was soon modified and continued – but instead of radio, now television provided the talent pool.
From Lou van Burg to Helge Schneider
Even those who were only show hosts, like Lou van Burg, Peter Frankenfeld, Robert Lembke and the trained actor Hans-Joachim Kulenkampff, were put in front of a camera, after becoming known to a wide audience via TV. At the beginning of the 1970s, Rudi Carrell and Ilja Richter joked around in half a dozen silly "Old Auntie-Films". Thomas Gottschalk and Mike Krüger continued this legacy in the following decade. Once having achieved considerable popularity through the TV series "Nonstop Nonsens", the successful stage comic Dieter Hallervorden began also to appear in a number of films from 1980 onwards: whereas the films "Ach du lieber Harry" (1981), "Alles im Eimer" (1981), "Didi - Der Doppelgänger" (1984) as well as "Didi und die Rache der Enterbten" (1985) are more slapstick, his later works ("Didi auf vollen Touren", 1986; "Der Experte", 1988; "Alles Lüge", 1992) tend to be more in the vain of cabaret and satire. Meanwhile, a significantly more subdued sense of humor was cultivated by the caricaturist "Loriot" alias Vicco von Bülow, who became the doyen of refined and sophisticated television entertainment in Germany with his series "Telekabinett" and "Loriot". After some sporadic attempts as a film actor in the 1960s, and after having a hilarious guest appearance in the rather average farce "Wer spinnt denn da, Herr Doktor?" (1982), he finally wrote, directed, and also starred in two extremely successful films. Both "Ödipussi" (1988) and "Pappa ante portas" (1991) give free reign to Loriot's main satirical theme of helplessness, and show very serious fools striving to master an increasingly absurd daily life, including well-mannered conversations which totally miss the point. In addition, Loriot also had a gag cameo in the film "Otto, der Außerfriesische" (1989), which highlighted the talents of his colleague Otto Waalkes.
When he started out, Otto promoted his stage program in his own television shows and on records before he was lured onto the big screen like Loriot by producer Horst Wendlandt. In 1985, Waalkes presented his opus "Otto - Der Film", in which an non-existent story provides the background for his brilliant one-man routines. This was followed by "Otto - Der neue Film" (1987), "Otto - Der Liebesfilm" (1992) and "Otto - Der Katastrofenfilm" (2000), before he conceived "7 Zwerge - Männer allein im Wald" ("Seven Dwarves", 2004) a cocky paraphrase of the fairy-tale of Snow White. For this he hired a whole bunch of TV-comedy stars, which in view of the ever diminishing significance of real acting ability are no longer called comic actors, but from now on are to be known as comedians. In Waalkes's version, the seven dwarves are played by such TV-comedians as Martin Schneider, Ralf Schmitz, Markus Majowski and Mirco Nontschew, who each play out their well-known TV trademarks; this also holds true for the actors in the supporting roles like Hans-Werner Olm, Atze Schröder and Helge Schneider
Political Satire: No Chance
Helge Schneider, who mixes his virtuosity as a musician with flat puns derived from his stage act, very consciously produced seemingly dilettantely made films in the 1990s, which had a very mixed reception. Some praise films like "Texas - Doc Snyder hält die Welt in Atem" (1993), "00 Schneider - Jagd auf Nihil Baxter" (1994) and "Praxis Dr. Hasenbein" (1997) for their outrageous plots, miserable dramaturgy, Schneider's deliberate non-acting, which boarders on the surreal, and their conscious departure from all accepted principles of cinema entertainment. The others, however, accuse Schneider's filmic creations of having "no plot, no sense" (Schweizer Zeitung, 30. 1. 1997), and see Schneider as a sort of unfunny comic. Even more unequivocal were the devastating reviews of "Die drei Mädels von der Tankstelle" ("Babe's Petrol", 1997), in which TV-comedian Wigald Boning played his first leading role. At the same time, his one-time stage partner Olli Dittrich was also to be found in films ("Frau Rettich, die Czerny und ich" ("Mrs. Rettich, Czerny and Me", 1998); "Late Show", 1999; "Der Wixxer", 2004) as well as in television (the series "Blind Date", starting 2001; "Dittsche", starting 2004), while comedians like Markus Maria Profitlich, Anke Engelke, Hella von Sinnen and Dirk Bach have up till now undertaken none or noticeably less excursions onto the big screen. While Jürgen von der Lippe returned once again to television after the failure of his film "Nich' mit Leo" (1995), the Hessian Duo Gerd Knebel and Henni Nachtsheim alias Badesalz made their film "Abbuzze! Der Badesalz-Film" (1996) simply recycling numbers from their stage acts in which both comedians constantly slip into new masquerades. Summing things up, while a sort of mild social critique is recognizable in Badesalz, real political satire hardly exists in German cinema today. TV-Stars Harald Schmidt and Ottfried Fischer, who originally came from political cabaret (whereas Fischer can look back on a career as supporting actor in movies), limit their screen appearances basically to the marketing of their own fame, which they acquired on the TV screen.
The National and The Regional
Still, the German-German reunification offered material and/or background for a bunch of likeable comedies, ranging from "Go, Trabi, Go" (1990; starring Wolfgang Stumph, a comedian originally hailing from GDR-television) to "Sonnenallee" ("Sun Alley", 1999) and "Herr Lehmann" ("Berlin Blues", 2003; both films using the acting talents of laconic comedian and director Detlev Buck). Comical reflections on other various social aspects – such as the big fuss surrounding the faked Hitler diaries ("Schtonk", 1992) or the phenomena of the radical squatters scene ("Was tun, wenn's brennt?", "What To Do In Case of Fire?", 2001) – remain an exception. While the frighteningly authentic petite bourgeois satirist Gerhard Polt created a wonderful series of satirical masterpieces for television, his appearances on the big screen are rather rare ("Kehraus", 1983; "Man spricht deutsh", 1988; "Herr Ober!", 1992), culminating in 2004 with the catastophic flop of his history drama spoof "Germanikus". The entertainer Hape Kerkeling, who played his first leading role in the successful comedy "Kein Pardon" (1993), worked later on as his own screenwriter for various television productions, including "Club Las Piranhas" (1995), "Willi und die Windzors" (1996) as well as the sitcom "Gisbert" (1998), and finally returned to feature films in 2004 with the comedy "Samba in Mettman". Preferring the Ruhr region as their setting, films like "Was nicht passt, wird passend gemacht" (1997), "Bang Boom Bang" (1999) and Tom Gerhardt's proletarian pranks in "Voll normaaal" (1994) and "Ballermann 6" (1997) make use of the stereotype of intellectually challenged hooligans, who communicate in a stupid, strangely bizarre dialect. Also following this pattern are teen-flics like "Harte Jungs" ("Ants In the Pants", 2000), "Feuer, Eis und Dosenbier" (2002) and "Knallharte Jungs" ("More Ants In the Pants", 2002), whose ensemble of actors fall back on tried and tested TV formulas.
The football comedy "Männer wie wir" ("Balls", 2004) continued a loose cycle of comedies revolving around the self-image and social status of homosexuals; a wave which had been set into motion by films like Sönke Wortmann's comic book adaptation "Der bewegte Mann" ("Maybe, Maybe not", 1994) and Rolf Silber's "Echte Kerle" ("Real Guys", 1996). These films represented a sort of "liberalized" analogy to those merry love and romance stories which surfaced during the 1980s and 1990s with films like "Männer" ("Men", 1985), "Beim nächsten Mann wird alles anders" (1988), "Allein unter Frauen" (1991), "Ein Mann für jede Tonart" (1992) and "Abgeschminkt" ("Making Up", 1993), which were hailed at that time as examples for a supposed renaissance of (West) German film comedy. Yet, the originality that had made Wortmann's film so refreshing went increasingly stale with each new succeeding film, until finally only empty clichés remained. For instance, a TV-series produced in 2003 was titled "Bewegte Männer" – a rare example of feature film material finding its way into television – and had nothing more to offer than sordid gay stereotypes. In contrast to this, the success story of the duo Erkan Maria Moosleitner and Stefan Lust went the exact opposite way. As comic couple "Erkan and Stefan", they transferred their comic personas - grammtically challenged German-Turkish morons with petty crook ambitions - first from the stage into television, and then finally into film ("Erkan & Stefan", "The Bunnyguards", 2000; "Erkan & Stefan gegen die Mächte der Finsternis", "Bunnyguards vs. The Forces of Evil", 2002; "Erkan und Stefan III - Der Tod kommt krass", "Bunnyguards III", 2005).
Manitou, Dreamship, Wixxer: German Comedy On A New Road?
The first feature film of the duo "Erkan and Stefan" was directed by a comedian and author, who later would be responsible for the two most remarkable German film comedies to premiere in recent years: Since 1997, Michael Herbig alias "Bully" has presented his "Bully-Parade" on television – a carefree revue of anarchistic skits, dialogues and songs, which he conceived together with his partners Christian Tramitz and Rick Kavanian. His trademark arrangement of fast paced, irreverent gags also characterizes his highly successful feature film "Der Schuh des Manitu" ("Manitou's Shoe", 2001), an emphatic and atmospheric spoof of the Karl-May-Western films of the 1960s, which derives most of its charm from the fact that it consciously emulates the film imagery of that time. Herbigs next film "(T)raumschiff Surprise - Periode 1" ("Dreamship Surprise - Period 1", 2004) follows the same formula by successfully spoofing the TV-Science-Fiction series "Star Trek". Almost at the same time as "Dreamship Surprise", the film "Der Wixxer" (2004) appeared, in which Oliver Kalkofe and Bastian Pastewka made fun of the Edgar-Wallace adaptations of the 1960s with all their spooky castles, secret societies, mad mass murders and creaky stairways. By taking on well-known classics, which are equally comically and lovingly caricatured, these spoofs are immediately recognized by the audience. Regarding their formal and narrative consistency, these films represent a novelty in German cinema. Because before them, only US productions like "The Naked Gun" ("Die nackte Kanone", 1988), featuring American comedy star Leslie Nielsen, or the rude anarcho-pranks of the British sextet Monty Python followed this approach. The German film comedy, which today recruits its most promising talents almost exclusively from television, finally heads into a new direction.