To analyse and criticise the German comdey genre, we must be aware of the different stages that German cinema underwent with the different historical events that hit it. In doing so, we can divide it briefly in three stages.
The first of these stages in the silent and pre-World War II comedy. This was still a time when Germany was intent upon the description of the modern development through technological and social advancements (portrayed excellently in Berlin: Symphony of a Great City) and did not shy away in comedy from even the most frivolous of themes and issues. This was still a time when Germany did not use the cinema as a weapon of propaganda, but as an almost pure way of entertainment. And as far as comedy was concerned, Germany had a master at works, Ernst Lubitsch, who was a great mind for the slapstick comedy, but did not shy away from the somewhat controversial themes. In one of his earlier films, which serves as a great example, called ‘I don’t want to be a Man!’, he tells the story of a girl, who disenchanted with the lifestyle that women live, dresses out as a man and goes out to a night club. This is quite the advanced theme, and there is no reason why we should not compare such a theme used for slapstick as the other innovative ones that saw German cinema establish a certain study of the human mind and psychology in German Expressionist masterpieces such as ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ right through to ‘M’. Hence, we can find in Lubitsch as well, as certain German authority in the eyes of the world, where even in comedy, other countries were finding inspirations.
At the second stage, it seemed the Germans did not feel like laughing so much. Very few are the memorable comedies that cover the Cold War years (not to mention the Nazi and the years immediately after the Nazi regime collapsed). One may see a representational one in the romantic comedy ‘The Legend of Paul and Paula’, which was amazingly done in East Germany, although the theme and style should have been deemed controversial by the Socialist East German government. Today, the exaggerated drama may seem laughable, but it’s easy to see why it was such a commercial success. For the first time in East Germany, East Germans could see themselves on screen and even laugh at themselves, and their wish to get away, to tear down the wall and be able to dream again.
The third stage is the one that starts with the re-unification of Germany and the fall of the Berlin wall. Germany, finally, started to look back at its troubled history and find the humorous aspects of it. Germany was finally making comedies worth looking at, like ‘Good Bye, Lenin!’ which is inspired by the fall of the Berlin wall and even the German speaking Swiss film ‘Go for Zucker’ was the first significant German speaking film to deal with Jews in a comedic way. However, the drama was always there. German comedy, and this must be said, does not guarantee a happy ending, or even a happy development. For instance, in ‘Good Bye, Lenin!’, the comedy of a young man trying to hide the reunification from her ill East German Socialist enthusiast mother, becomes the drama of the realisation that the Germany that the young man builds is the Germany that should have been after reunification, but it is also only for his mother to see. In a more extreme way, the comedy ‘Herr Lehmann’ goes from being an almost thoughtless light-hearted comedy about a young man who does not know too well what to do with his life to being a drama about his friend’s mental breakdown.
Therefore, German cinema has overcome all historical obstacles like the division of the Berlin wall, the Nazi regime and the realisations of the horrors of Nazism to hava a home grown breed of comedy that looks at the development of characters and the drama of the comedy. Only when German filmmakers try to be American they get either stupid or sugary (like in the case of rom-com Barefuss). It appears, however, that the German comedy has had its brand new start with the fall of the Berlin wall, and because of this, we shall look forward to seeing a lot more innovation from the genre in the years to come.