Director: Leander Haußmann (Germany). Year of Release: 2022
The opening credits roll: “The DDR, the 1980s. Despite this, sun”. A young man waits opposite a red Ampelmann at the pedestrian crossing on Leninplatz. And waits. There is no traffic. A literal piece of tumbleweed blows down the street. A street cleaning vehicle approaches, and the man looks on in horror as it threatens to sweep up a small cat. Somewhere, in an unknown grey office, a man presses a button. The pedestrian crossing turns green, and the man dashes to save the cat.
Fast forward to the present day. Novelist Ludger Fuchs has been allowed to take his Stasi file home. His young daughter is excited as she’s been given a school project on the DDDR (sic). The rest of the family is excited about what they’ll find about Fuchs’s time as a prominent participant of the protests which helped bring down the Berlin wall. He look more reticent than the rest of his family.
When he opens the file, it becomes obvious why. There, taped back together, is a letter to a young Fuchs, which among other things compliments him on his love making. It is dated from a time when he was already together with his wife Corinna, although the handwriting is most definitely not hers. At first he storms out of the house, then returns sheepishly to try to repair the damage.
We rush back to the 1980s, where we’ll stay for most of the rest of the film. We learn that the young man we met at the start was indeed the young Fuchs, who is inveigled into the Stasi to avoid trouble over his traffic misdemeanour. He is assigned to a group of young men, deployed to infiltrate the developing alternative scene in Prenzlauer Berg. Their task is to visit and report from parties which regularly feature someone like Allen Ginsburg reading out poems in the kitchen.
Oppositional women are without exception beautiful. Despite his awkwardness and naiveté, attractive women all fall instantly for Fuchs. I am reminded of (justified) criticism of The West Wing, where nerds without any obvious charisma make women weak at the knees although the woman had recently organised a major CIA hit on an unnamed country in the Global South. Once the nerds get hold of the scriptwriters’ pen, the other nerds on film suddenly become irresistible.
Fuchs develops a double life, having affairs with both the dissident Corinna and the equally beautiful Natalie. It’s basically Goodnight Sweetheart without the time travel (you can take this as a good or bad thing according to your taste). It’s ok if you like that sort of thing, but basically it’s a load of comedy clichés strung along after each other.
I had 3 misgivings about the film, before going to the cinema. Firstly the title – not Stasikomödie, but “Leander Haussmanns Stasikomödie”. Now Leander Haußmann is a moderately successful director, whose films have been generally ok – the best one I remember seeing is Sonnenallee. But he’s been hardly prolific – this is his third film in the last decade, and his films were never that great. Implying in the title that he is the reason to see it is setting yourself up for a fall.
Secondly, the fact that it’s a German comedy. Now I don’t want to repeat old stereotypes about humourless Germans. But it is true that if you see a film which uses different cultural references – a different language even, you’re not as likely to get all the jokes, especially if it’s set in such a specific time and place as 1980s East German. Almost certainly there were jokes in there that I just didn’t get. It’s more my fault than anyone else’s, but means German comedies rarely work for me.
Finally – a comedy about the Holocaust? Really? Life is Beautiful proved that playing the Holocaust for laughs is often offensive. Couldn’t the same be said of the DDR? Some friends who lived there would argue that the Stasi was indeed more ridiculous than terrifying. My friend Victor Grossman, who defected to the DDR when faced with a prison sentence for being in the US Communist Party insists that the East German security services were trivial compared to those in his home country.
And yet, while Stasikomödie does portray the Stasi as a bit ridiculous and incompetent, it is only able to maintain the humour through a series of tired clichés that don’t really work. The young Stasi recruits with unfashionable moustaches who can’t merge in with the bohemians they are supposed to be infiltrating because they have no sense of style. The overbearing and probably alcoholic Stasi boss. This things may be based on truth but only work for people who were there.
For me Stasikomödie just tries too hard, and aims for the cheap laugh rather than trying to say anything important. It’s a comedy without many jokes, a romance where the protagonists fulfil too many stereotypes for you to feel for them. If it was attempting a serious satire on the Stasi, it lacked the necessary gravitas. Maybe I should not take it seriously and just enjoy it for what it is. Or maybe I should just accept that some films and me just don’t get on.