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Arts & Culture for Jewish Comic Film, Awards Show Germans Now Able to Laugh with Jews

July 14, 2005
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When Germany’s new Jewish-themed film comedy reaped the most nominations for the country’s highest film awards in May, hardly anyone was more surprised than the filmmaker himself. Now “Alles auf Zucker” (“Go for Zucker”) has swept the awards, winning six prizes — including Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor.

The Best Film award, announced last Friday, carries a prize of about $600,000.

“I am not used to such attention,” the Swiss-born director, Dani Levy, 47, said in a recent telephone interview. Levy has had several other moderate successes in Germany but never a film “that everyone loves. For me, it’s a miracle.”

“Alles auf Zucker” outpaced “The Downfall,” a dark film about Hitler’s last weeks, in the race for the top awards.

What’s funny about an extended family in which fervent Orthodoxy is pitted against ultra-assimilation, the communist is pitted against the unscrupulous businessman, the lesbian against the Chasid, and the mama’s boy against the supersexy cousin?

What’s funny about the conflict between former East and West Germany played out through the eyes of Jews? And what’s funny about a Jewish gambling addict who blames his failures on anti-Semitism?

Everything, it seems.

“Naturally, Jews always know how to laugh over themselves. It’s in our nature,” said Levy, who now lives with his wife and child in Berlin, the city where his mother was born. “What maybe is new here is that Jews are presented with self-confidence. The older generation was afraid to broadcast such images of themselves because they were afraid of anti-Semitism and prejudice. With the new generation, these fears are not so widespread.”

In Germany, a film has to appeal to non-Jewish audiences to be a success, and this one does.

“You can watch ‘Zucker’ and know nothing about Jews and still enjoy it,” said Nicola Galliner, the founder and director of the 11-year-old Jewish film festival in Berlin, which also thrives on non-Jewish crowds. “I don’t think there are many German films on a Jewish subject that are lighthearted.”

“I loved that movie,” said Irene Runge, the founder of the Jewish Cultural Association in Berlin.

“It used to be that everything about Jews was always about the past,” said Runge, who invited Levy and his co-writer, Holger Franke, to talk at the association’s center earlier this year. With this film, “German Jews have fun; non-Jews have fun. And I think you go out of the film with a more positive feeling, not like what we had before. It’s how we see ourselves, and that’s what I like about it.”

There’s a great curiosity among many non-Jews in Germany about Jewish life, but many people here still associate Jews with victimhood. They may be familiar with Woody Allen’s self-effacing Jewish humor, and they may have seen the award-winning Holocaust tragicomedy “Life is Beautiful.”

They may have visited or seen Jewish institutions. But German Jews themselves remain a mystery.

And they need not be, said Levy, who suggests that laughter may be the best way to ease tensions between Jews and non-Jews in Germany.

Laughing at another group of people “I have always found painful, whether it’s aimed at Jews or others,” he said. “There’s something respectless about it. But if you laugh with people, it’s a sign that you like them. In this film, people like the characters and can suffer with them and feel with them. And I think that’s always the best way to win people over and to cross borders.”

“Zucker” tell the story of a contemporary German Jewish family in which two warring brothers — formerly separated by the Berlin Wall — are reunited after the death of their mother. The nonreligious, communist brother is addicted to gambling; the Orthodox, capitalist brother is a real-estate tycoon.

Through a comedy of errors, the characters rediscover each other’s essential humanity. In the process, their own prejudices — and those of the audience — are systematically exposed and blasted.

Normality between Jews and non-Jews in Germany is elusive, for good reason, Levy said.

“One cannot come to terms with what Germany did 60 years ago. It will take many generations. It is a still a stigma,” he said.

Alongside the attempts to understand the past is a tendency to “minimize it,” Levy explains. “And I see the film ‘The Downfall’ as one that somehow tries to rehabilitate the past: There was this one bad guy, and the others just joined in.

“Today there is a kind of longing for the past. The Germans see themselves as a land of victims, which I can also understand,” he continued. “People were bombed and soldiers who were not Nazis were dragged into the war. It’s terribly gruesome. And I think it’s important to give room to those ‘forbidden feelings’ and to look at those sides of German history that were taboo. It’s a healthy development.”

Laughter too was taboo, and some who have seen “Zucker” have not been able to cross that bridge, Levy said. One couple, who described themselves as Orthodox, wrote in the film’s online guest book that they “felt very wounded and slipped out of the theater” with a sense of shame.

“This hurt me,” Levy said. “Because I do not want to insult Orthodox Jews or make fun of them in any way. I have an Orthodox brother-in-law and have nothing against Orthodoxy, though I am not Orthodox myself. And I can laugh about them, but they can also laugh about me.”

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