Unlike their counterparts in the US, the UK, France, Canada and Israel, German filmmakers have mostly shied away from making Jewish-themed comedies. Given the country’s recent history, it had been considered taboo to portray Jews on film in stories other than ones that dealt with the Holocaust. In 2005, writer-director Dani Levy threw political correctness to the wind and came out with GO FOR ZUCKER!: AN UNORTHODOX COMEDY (or ALLES AUF ZUCKER in German), a film that poked fun at today’s German Jews. The movie was a huge success, dominating the German Film Awards that year taking six Golden Lolas including ones for Best Feature Film, Best Director and Best Leading Actor.
In GO FOR ZUCKER!, bar owner, scheming gambler and pool shark Jaeckie Zucker (Henry Hübchen) is finding that his run of good luck is quickly coming to an end. His creditors want their money, he’s about to lose his bar and his wife wants a divorce. At the same time, his mother passes away and she leaves Jaeckie with a challenge in order to get his share of the estate: He has to make peace with his estranged brother, Samuel (Udo Samel). But it’s not so easy. Samuel is an orthodox Jew living in Frankfurt whereas Jaeckie, who lives in the former East Berlin, is about as secular as they come. Even his long-suffering wife, Marlene (Hannelore Elsner) is a gentile. To get his hands on the inheritance and pay off his debts, Jaeckie has to come up with his most elaborate scheme yet.
The film not only skewers religion – the scenes where Marlene becomes an overnight Yiddishe Mame (Jewish mother) are hysterical – but it also takes a jab at the relations between East and West Germans, who had only been reunified for 15 years at that time. In a country where movie audiences were meant to feel guilty about their treatment of Jews during the Second World War, this film was groundbreaking.
I must admit that I have a special affinity for this film because I brought it to Hong Kong in 2005 when I was running the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival. It apparently took Levy four years to make the film because financial backers were reluctant to fund a Jewish comedy. Producers and older Jewish filmmakers in Germany also urged him to give up on the project. German filmmakers of Jewish-themed comedies still have a long way to go before they catch up to their counterparts in other countries but, with GO FOR ZUCKER!, they took a huge step forward.
GO FOR ZUCKER! will be screened by the Goethe-Institut as part of their German Film Forum focussing on “Family Matters”. You can catch it at the Hong Kong Film Archive Cinema in Shau Kei Wan on Friday night, September 26th, at 8 pm. For more information, check out their website at www.goethe.de/hongkong.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 43:06.)