Culture Film & TV Films in Translation

Sitting Uncomfortably? German comedy with a bitter aftertaste

Illustration by Emma Tolhurst

When it comes to making audiences laugh out loud, German films don’t tend to have the best of reputations amongst British audiences. Often dismissed as ‘to the point’ and ‘serious’, German comedy rarely gets a look in at British box offices. But can a humourless nation truly exist or is this simply a case of comedy that cannot cross borders?

As a student of German and a lover of the culture myself, I cannot help but think that perhaps the problem does not lie with German scriptwriters, but with British audiences. All too often, the humour is there, but we are just incapable of seeing it. Partly, although not entirely, this is due to a language barrier. Grammatically speaking, German and English are very different. To name one example, where German has ten different ways of saying ‘the’, English, somewhat boringly, has only one, giving German comedians vast opportunity to play around with homophones to their heart’s content. With many German jokes utilising the fail-safe method of play-on-words, a particular example that always sticks with me is ‘what, according to Sigmund Freud, comes between fear and sex? Fünf’. Hilarious to those who can count to ten in German, but impenetrable to those who cannot. With comedy being the genre to accumulate the most box office sales in Germany in 2018, no one can argue that the Germans don’t have a funny bone in their body. So why the humourless reputation? 

In recent years, there has been a rise in the popularity of German comedies tackling pertinent, contentious  issues such as right-wing extremism, immigration and racism. This is German comedy meets social commentary, leaving some chuckling and others squirming in their seats. Initially, these seem rather insensitive issues around which to centre a comedy. But, as I started to delve deeper into the topic, I realised that we shouldn’t be judging a book, or in this case a film, by its cover, with German film directors cleverly identifying a cunning niche in the industry…

When I first stumbled across Er ist wieder da (Look Who’s Back) on Netflix, with a shiny picture of Hitler under the category of comedy, I must admit, I was a little taken aback, troubled even. I was unable to compute how this jarring fusion could ever be successful. Directed by David Wnendt and telling the story of a Hitler who is reborn into the 21st century with no knowledge of anything post 1945, the film details his many trials and tribulations in modern-day Berlin. Hitler finally finds fame and success as a comedian, simply because nobody can take him seriously. I initially expected this film to be met with disgust, perhaps even outrage amongst German audiences – however, it was not. In fact, Oliver Masucci was nominated for Best Actor and the film won Best Film at the National Film Awards. So, what is it about this controversial film that allows German audiences to howl with laughter whilst others cringe in their seats? When I continued to research into German comedy, I found that this film was no anomaly. 

By the same token, Simon Verhoeven’s Willkommen bei den Hartmanns (Welcome to Germany) utilises comedy, in this instance, to discuss the rather relevant and delicate issue of immigration in Germany. Released in 2016, when discussions of migration were prevalent in Germany, Verhoeven’s use of dark humour to explore the relationship between a German family and their Nigerian refugee lodger seems a surprising choice. It feels wrong to laugh at Herr Hartmann’s all too well-observed lack of political correctness and at Diallo, the Nigerian refugee, being accused of inviting prostitutes into a primary school – yet this is exactly the desired effect. That is not to say, however, that the film has you chuckling from start to finish. In the mix are some incredibly poignant moments, usually brought about by Diallo, who seems to have an uncanny ability to bring the family together. Comedy, however, is the predominant genre – and with good reason. In both films, comedy is utilised as a means to educate, to make the audience consider what they have just witnessed, and perhaps even ask themselves why they are laughing. After all, when was the last time you cracked up at Hitler taking over an office in 21st century Berlin or a Nigerian refugee telling his thirty-year-old guest family’s daughter that she really ought to be having children? The results are incredibly effective – especially amongst younger audiences, who are more inclined to engage with such difficult, complex societal matters through comedy. You could even go so far as to say that these directors have done what only the great German artists such as Brecht have been able to achieve. That is, not to allow an audience to ‘hang up their brains with their hats in the cloakroom’, but rather to force them to observe the scene, engage with what they are watching and employ rationality in order to ascertain what they can take away from the performance.  

On a finishing note, the next time you find yourself laughing at a German film, consider that there may be more going on than what meets the eye. So, sit up in your seat, take note and consider that what you are witnessing is, perhaps, more than just a laughing matter.

Holly Bostock

Holly is a keen actress, skier and musical theatre enthusiast. When she's not studying French and German, she can usually be found playing her guitar or wild swimming in Port Meadow.