They’re Laughing at Jews in Germany
Dani Levy has tussled gray hair and a sleepy-looking face. It’s a classic Jewish face: tan skin, round features and flashes of irony in his small, dark eyes. He’s wearing a sweater and trousers and scratching his head, choosing his words carefully. As he reclines on a sofa and sips mineral water at Café Bilderbuch in Berlin, Levy doesn’t come across as a man who has taken Germany’s film world by storm. Ask the box office, though, and they’ll tell you: He’s the one.
It took Levy four years to find a producer and four more years to get his latest movie into the theaters. Now that it is, “Alles auf Zucker!” (“Go for Zucker: An Unorthodox Comedy”) has bagged 10 nominations for this year’s German Film Prize awards, given on July 8. It’s not every day that a comedy about German Jews, told by a non-Jewish writer, depicted by non-Jewish actors and directed toward a non-Jewish audience, succeeds in Germany. But more to the point, “Go for Zucker” is the first film about Jews in postwar Germany that isn’t about the Holocaust.
“We are experimenting, successfully I think, with breaking traditions in ways of looking at the Holocaust and Judaism,” said Levy, a Swiss-born Jew whose mother fled Berlin in 1939. “There has always been a paranoid focus on Jews in Germany, one that people dealt with as a burden — a heavy weight of guilt and shame. For non-Jews to laugh at Jews was considered antisemitic.”
Levy changed all that with “Zucker,” a slapstick comedy about two Jewish brothers who, divided for 40 years by the Berlin Wall and reunited upon their mother’s death, must reconcile old differences and observe the weeklong funeral rite of shiva in order to claim their inheritance. The film — featuring two German stars, Henry Hübchen and Hannelore Elsner — pokes fun at Jewish life while exposing rifts between East and West Germans, and between gays and straights, that drive the comedy deeper.
Through flawed but loveable characters such as the scrappy, pool shark protagonist, Jacky Zucker (Hübchen), Levy dispels old Jewish stereotypes while running the risk of creating new ones in their place: the stuttering son, the sex-addicted cousin, the angry lesbian daughter and so on. But by setting up a conflict of extremes — an Orthodox Jewish family from the West confronting a highly unorthodox one from the East — the film recruits that comedic form beloved by Jews and Germans alike: irony. So much of it, in fact, that a joke about the Holocaust gets laughs.
“If you keep yourself untouchable, I think it raises antisemitism much more than if you put yourself in front of people’s eyes,” said Levy, 47. “It’s necessary that this digestion never ends.”
Levy isn’t the only filmmaker taking advantage of a German audience that has warmed to Jewish subjects in recent years. The 11th Berlin Jewish Film Festival, which ended June 30, is the oldest Jewish film festival in Europe and hosts an 80% non-Jewish public. This year’s lineup, under the theme “Heimat, Heimweh, Heimisch Sein,” (“Homeland, Homesick, Feeling Home”), included 25 films with productions ranging from Australia to Norway, Tunisia to Spain. There also was a large batch from Israel.
“When I came here 36 years ago, Germany was about as popular as Siberia, from a Jewish perspective,” said Nikola Galliner, a British national who runs the festival and the Berlin Jewish community’s cultural events. But since 1979, when the American-produced “Holocaust” series aired on German national television, awakening horrific memories and feelings of guilt about the war, Germans have shown a “never-ending fascination with Jews and all things Jewish,” she said.
Besides the flood of books and films that Germans themselves produced about the Nazi era, movies from Israel poured in and received large audiences during the 1980s and early ’90s. Then Hollywood crushed the competition with such blockbuster films as “Schindler’s List” (which got 6 million German viewers) and “The Pianist”; this year’s German films, “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days” and “Downfall,” have cornered the wartime movie market even further.
“Now when you want to produce films dealing with the Holocaust, the German public is tired of it and it becomes very hard to sell,” Eitan Evan, a producer for Israel’s Evanstone Films, Ltd., said on the phone from his office in Tel Aviv.
Yet part of the reason for Levy succeeding in making a film about German Jews might be precisely that he isn’t one.
“I think Germans would feel very uncomfortable doing” a film like “Zucker,” said Holly-Jane Rahlens, an American Jewish author living in Berlin. Like Levy, Rahlens — whose novel, “Prince William, Maximilian Minsky and Me,” about a Jewish teenage girl growing up in Berlin, has become a hit here — brings a foreigner’s perspective to the question of being Jewish in Germany today.
“German Jews are extremely self-conscious about putting themselves in the limelight. Levy, as an outsider, can do that,” she said.
After production costs of 1.5 million euros ($1.8 million), “Zucker” has nearly tripled that amount in revenues from its 800,000 viewers in Germany, where it won the Ernst Lubitsch Prize for best comedy earlier this year. Sold in more than 10 countries, the film will make its American premiere this month at the opening night of the 25th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
Levy, who moved 25 years ago from Basel, Switzerland, to Berlin, where he lives with his wife and their 5-year-old daughter, has spent more than a decade building a track record of films with Jewish themes, such as “Meschugge” (“The Giraffe,” 1998) and “Ohne Mich” (“Without Me,” 1993). The secret, he said, is not “infiltrating” Germany with Jewish culture, but finding places to slip it in where it counts.
“The most organic way is to integrate Jewish irony, psychology and humor into German culture without their even noticing it’s there,” he said. “I don’t see a borderline between Jews and non-Jews. I don’t want to make myself separate from German culture by making us different, because we’re not.”
For years, Levy and his co-writer, Holger Franke, struggled to sell the idea of “Zucker” to producers, who feared its subject matter and slim financial chance of success. But after three television networks backed the project, which got wide approval at screenings in Munich, X Filme Creative Pool, a company Levy himself helped to found, brought “Zucker” into theaters at the start of this year. Now, suddenly, the film looks like it was meant to be.
“We’re stepping into a new generation of dealing with history in a more universal way,” Levy said, placing “Zucker” into context with a current wave in European cinema — one that is cutting across cultural, racial, sexual and religious lines formerly considered taboo.
“People appreciate getting a more daring perspective. If you make a movie that doesn’t reach people’s hearts, it won’t get the reaction [‘Zucker’] got. People feel challenged, and that’s what makes them like it.”
Michael Levitin is a freelance writer living in Berlin.