It could be argued that comedy is the most utterly subjective of film genres. A half-bright filmmaker can make an audience cry without much effort.
Even an incompetent documentary can deliver information in some form. Laughter, by contrast, is incredibly personal. Either the joke works for you or it doesn’t. Or as Johnny Carson used to say, ‘If you buy the premise, you buy the bit.”
What engendered these idle musings is the confluence of two films opening Jan. 11 that both purport to be comedies. It would be hard to find two more dissimilar films on Jewish themes ostensibly in the same genre than “Let My People Go!” and “My Best Enemy.” Each is a bit of a misfire, but their failings are diametrically opposed and, in the case of “Let My People Go!” not fatal. Both films want desperately to mix moods daringly; neither quite manages that difficult feat, yet neither is without interest.
“My Best Enemy,” directed by veteran Austrian filmmaker Wolfgang Murnberger, sets itself the daunting task of getting laughs out of the Shoah. In the notes on the film, Murnberger evokes Lubitsch and Chaplin as inspirations, but “To Be Or Not to Be” and “The Great Dictator” were made before the full extent of the Nazis murderous plans were clear (or, in the latter case, even formulated). With historical knowledge, Murnberger and screenwriter Paul Hengge have a much steeper hill to climb.
“Enemy” has a complicated plot with a flashback structure, not necessarily a further drawback to eliciting laughter. Your average French bedroom farce also has a complicated narrative, in the case of “Let My People Go!” one might almost say cluttered. But the elements of farce are deliberately arbitrary and usually absurd. The plot developments of “Enemy” derive from the mendacity and viciousness of its Nazi characters and lead not to social embarrassment but to death.
The film begins with a group of Polish partisans downing a German plane in wartime. Only two of the passengers and crew survive, a Jew in the uniform of a concentration-camp prisoner and an SS officer, who is unconscious and badly wounded. The Jew, for reasons yet unknown, drags the Nazi from the burning wreckage. Then a flashback takes us to Vienna on the eve of the Annexation, where we meet Victor (Moritz Bleibtreu), the rather pampered son of a successful Jewish art dealer, and Rudi Smekal (Georg Friedrich), a family friend from childhood and a failed artist looking for some direction in life. Rudi rescues Victor from a street brawl with some Nazi thugs and the pair end up in jail overnight, where all the class differences emerge like a suddenly festering sore. Inevitably and unsurprisingly, Rudi joins the Nazis, rising slowly but surely in the SS, while the Kaufmanns are repeatedly victimized. What seems to be keeping them alive, albeit just barely, is the family’s knowledge of the whereabouts of a rare Michelangelo drawing which the Third Reich wants badly. The rest of the film’s action will pivot on possession of the drawing.
Pivot is the correct word. In the aftermath of the plane wreck — Victor and Rudi are the surviving pair — their positions as prisoner and jailer are reversed by the simple expedient of an exchange of clothes. This is the section of the film that most resembles the comedy it aspires to be. But there are two problems that undercut the comic potential of the film’s second half. First, “Enemy” is visually structured around a profusion of deep shadows, as befits the action. Second, Murnberger paces it like a suspense film, which doesn’t exactly pump up the laughter. The result is that the film is too slow and too dark to really play as comedy. As drama, there is nothing particularly wrong with “My Best Enemy” but it is derivative and, except for Bleibtreu, who is quite winning, rather bland.
No one would call “Let My People Go!” bland. Frenetic to the point of strain, certainly. Shrill, occasionally. Funny, frequently, but never bland. The film is a hyperactive farce about a gay Jewish Frenchman, Ruben (Nicolas Maury), living in Finland with his partner Teemu (Jarkko Niemi) and working as a postman. When a huge package of cash falls into his lap just before Passover, it sets off a chain reaction that ends with their relationship in tatters and Ruben reluctantly returning to his aggressively dysfunctional family in Paris. Of course, that’s when things begin to get really complicated.
From the film’s opening shots of a picture-postcard Technicolor-gaudy Finnish lakeside, we know that we are not exactly in the real world, and Buch and production designer Gwendal Bescond do a delicious job of creating a dream-like setting for the ornate shenanigans that follow. Buch elicits a fairly consistently cartoonish set of performances from a cast that includes some practiced farceurs including Almodovar regular Carmen Maura as Ruben’s mother, Jean-Francois Stevenin as his father, and Jean-Luc Bideau as the sex-obsessed family lawyer. Maury is a deft physical comic who combines a certain wistfulness with the ability to let his features suddenly go slack, as if his emotions were making his face melt.
But Buch is not satisfied just making a slam-bang farce. He wants to elicit real feelings, too, which is pretty hard to do when your characters are little more than diagrammatic laugh machines. Somewhere in the middle of the film, he starts trying to humanize them with the result that the whole thing goes mushy-soft at its center. If you’re Billy Wilder or Leo McCarey or Blake Edwards, you can pull of that kind of mood-switching tightrope act. Mikael Buch is a first-time feature director. He’s not at that level yet. On the other hand, there are enough felicities in “Let My People Go!” that I suspect it will be fun to watch him working towards that goal.
“My Best Enemy” opens Friday, Jan. 11 at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Avenue, at W. Third St.); for information, call (212) 924-7771 or go to www.ifccenter.com.
“Let My People Go!” opens Friday, Jan. 11 at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.); for information call (212) 255-2243 or go to www.quadcinema.com.