For some reason people tend to think of the Germans as bitter, über-correct and insanely anal. For those who don’t actually speak the language, German sounds very strict and harsh, especially when it’s yet another WWII movie soldier barking commands at others. On top of that, the general consensus seems to be Germans have no sense of humor whatsoever. Germany even won first prize for most humorless nation in a 2007 study.
Jawohl, it’s all bull-schei?e! German humor is based on wordplay, past and present politics and a unique type of dry sarcasm and irony that may take some time to get used to. That doesn’t mean to say you won’t understand it at all, but it does take some knowledge of Germany’s historical background (let’s lay off the Hitler jokes, guys) and its regions to get a true sense of what it is that makes German beer bellies jiggle with laughter.
We’ve put together a list of some of the best German comedies that features post-war as well as modern movies by directors as varied as Loriot and Marcus H. Rosenmüller. Oh, and we even managed to sneak a little stoner comedy in there too. These movies will have you yodeling with laughter.
Director: Niki List, Gerhard Hahn and Michael Schaak
Beer lovers and Oktoberfest enthusiasts have probably learned the German word for “cheers” by now: Prost! But if you happen to find yourself surrounded by beer-slurping German biker folk, don’t be too surprised if you hear the expression Hau wech die Schei?e (down that shit) to accompany the clinking of bottles. This expression originated from the Werner comics that first became popular in 1981. Werner is a plumber who spends his free time causing chaos on the streets with his motorbike, drinking his beloved Bölkstoff beer and obsessing about football. He works for his plumber master Röhrich and his sidekick Eckat and always manages to instigate the biggest construction site accidents and conflicts imaginable.
In the first film adaptation, Werner – Beinhart!, we are introduced to Werner creator Rötger “Brösel” Feldmann, who is being kept prisoner by König Griesgram dem Groben (King Sourpuss the Gruff) and is forced to create a film that will make the king laugh. Only the king has a weird disease that affects his laughing muscles, ergo he cannot laugh. He has beheaded great comics like Woody Allen, Otto Waalkes and even Buster Keaton for failing to make him snicker. Rötger has three days to sketch an animation film in his dark dungeon. With the creation of Werner, Rötger is sure to have saved his own ass. The animation film starts out with Werner kicking a football into the open marketplace below his penthouse apartment. As the ball bounces from stall to stall, destroying everything in its wake, Werner narrates from his window as if it were a real football game. Having had his kicks for the day, he goes off to work where fecal disaster strikes.
Hau wech die Schei?e wasn’t the only expression Werner fans adopted for their everyday vocabularies. Post-Werner, the police became known as the bullerei (bulls), a bottle of beer was no longer eine Flasche Bier but Fläshbier, and plumber workshops became known simply as Gas, Wasser, Schei?e (Gas, Water, Shit).
Director: Xaver Schwarzenberger
Otto Waalkes, born a Friesenjung (a boy from Frisia), is one of the most popular German comedians of the ’80s and ’90s. Otto had his first public appearance in a shopping mall when he was 11 years old. He performed the “Babysitter Boogie” and was paid with a 30-deutsche-mark gift certificate and a copy of Mutiny on the Bounty. He started playing guitar when he was 12 and toured East Frisia with his band The Rustlers, mainly performing Beatles songs. In the late ’60s he moved to Hamburg, where he lived in the “Villa Kunterbunt” with the likes of Udo Lindenberg and Marius Müller-Westernhagen. In order to finance his visual arts studies he started performing in small clubs around Hamburg. Stage fright and nerves often got the better of him, so much so he’d often drop the mic. To make up for his clumsiness he would crack jokes in between songs and apologize profusely. His jokes and apologies soon started doing better than his music, and before long he booked huge venues with his comedy routine.
Otto – Der Film is the first in a series of five Otto movies. He also appeared in 7 Zwerge – Männer Allein im Wald (7 Dwarves – Men Alone in the Woods) alongside Nina Hagen, Harald Schmidt and Tom Gerhardt. His cartoon creation the Ottifant appeared in various publications and also had its own show and movie, Kommando Störtebeker. In Otto – Der Film, Otto escapes from his smothering mom and makes his way to the big city of Hamburg in the hopes of opening his own business: OSSI, Otti’s Super-Service International. “Ossi” is also a term used to describe people from the East; wordplay is an essential part of Otto’s comedy routine. Otto meets the loan shark… erm, Shark, who gets him to sign a contract without reading the small print, seeing as it is “bad for the eyes.” OSSI doesn’t quite take off, but Shark expects a payout and Otto is forced to find catastrophically hilarious ways of getting the money.
Director: Sönke Wortmann
The beloved travesty-comedy Charley’s Aunt goes back to 1892. Brandon Thomas was a trained ship’s carpenter from a poor background who, against his father’s wishes, moved to London to become an actor. He also wrote a few plays, but only one became popular: Charley’s Aunt. It premiered in February 1892 in Bury St Edmunds and within a couple years was translated into German and French. There are several German film variations of Charley’s Tante, most notably the 1963 version starring the legendary Peter Alexander and the 1996 edition directed by Sönke Wortmann. Both films differ from Brandon Thomas’s original script but guarantee laughter of the bellyaching kind.
In Wortmann’s version, Waldemar (Horst Krause), the owner of a Berlin meat franchise, is cheated out of 5 million dollars by Stefan Lohman (Thomas Heinze), an investment adviser based in Hong Kong. Waldemar has just one week to sort out this mess before the bank seizes his business, so he travels to Munich to meet Argentinean “Beef Baroness” Lucia d’Alvarez (Anya Hoffman) in the hopes of getting into business with her. What he doesn’t realize is that Lohman has also come to Munich to hide out in the house of Lucia´s nephew Charley. He is planning a big party with Charley (Niels Ruf), to which Waldemar’s daughter is also invited. When Lohman almost runs into Waldemar, he realizes his game is up. But then he comes up with the brilliant idea to save himself by posing as Lucia, which leads to various comical situations…
Unfortunately we couldn’t get the trailer for Wortmann’s version of the film, but the Austrian edition with Peter Alexander will give you a taste of what to expect.
Director: Peter Timm
Often described as the “cult film for the children of the East,” Go Trabi Go was the first film to depict life after the German reunification. The story follows the Struutz family on a turbulent road trip to Naples shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Father Udo (Wolfgang Stumph) insists on using Goethe’s Italian Journey as his guide as the family makes their way to Italy through Bayern in their little blue Trabi (Trabant) “Schorsch.” After a quick stop in Regensburg where they visit relatives (here we get to see one of Bavaria’s favorite actors, Ottfried Fischer, in the role of a typically grumpy Bavarian), the family’s journey is put to the test with car troubles, creepy accommodations and, ultimately, a ride with a lorry driver who brings them closer to their destination. Once they finally make it to Rome, Udo slips into the role of the ignorant tourist, often using every language but Italian to make himself understood. When their camera, “Opa’s Japaner” (Grandpa’s Japanese), is stolen, Udo’s wife Rita (Marie Gruber) and his daughter Jacqueline (Claudia Schmutzler) chase the thief through Rome and finally get it back, pocketing the rest of his loot, too. Instead of putting a little more effort into rejoining Udo, Jacqueline and Rita use their newly acquired money to check into a luxurious hotel. Meanwhile, Udo lives it up with some Italian beauties and accidentally drives his overladen Trabi down a flight of stairs, leaving the car pretty much ready for the scrapyard. The Struutz family drives back home in a roofless Schorsch.
Delivered in a strong Saxon dialect and highlighting the typical stereotypes surrounding the “Ossies” (people from East Germany) and the “Wessies” (people from Western Germany), the film offers an exaggerated portrait of repeated culture shocks and clashes. With a lot of love and humor, it introduces us to naïve characters who are still adapting to the role of the modern, worldly German.
Director: Sönke Wortmann
Starring German heartthrob Til Schweiger in the lead role, this film is based on the comics Der Bewegte Mann and Pretty Baby by Ralf König. König made a name for himself in the late ’70s when his comics were published in underground magazine Zomix and the publication Rosa Flieder. By 1981, he published the series SchwulComix (GayComix), which depicted the everyday lives of its LGBT characters in an ironic, often self-deprecating manner. In 1987, he published Kondom des Grauens (Killer Condom) and Der Bewegte Mann, which reached beyond the LGBT population. In 1994, director Sönke Wortmann adapted Der Bewegte Mann for the screen to a brilliant response: It topped Forrest Gump and The Lion King with more than 6.5 million visitors at the cinema. Der Bewegte Mann focuses on Axel (Schweiger), a young waiter who loves his girlfriend Doro (Katja Riemann) but not as much as he loves his extracurricular adventures. When Doro finds him in flagrante delicto once again (this time at work!), she kicks him out only to discover she is pregnant with his child. None of his exes wants to take him in so he makes his way to a friend’s house, who happens to host a men’s group currently discussing the difference between the clitoral and vaginal orgasm. Here Axel meets the outgoing Walter, alias Waltraut (Rufus Beck), who immediately finds himself crushing on the bachelor in distress and invites him to stay at his flat.
The next day Waltraut and his friend, the introverted and shy Norbert (Joachim Król), get all dolled up for a tuntenball (drag queens’ ball) and Axel decides to join. He gets absolutely shitfaced and, as the star of the party, has a blast dancing with glittery lady-men. But he’s starting to feel uncomfortable with Waltraut’s obvious intentions and would rather stay with the sad-eyed Norbert, who can’t believe his luck. Norbert, a bit of a perfectionist whose apartment likens a poster-ad for clean living, is more than happy to put up with Axel and his destructive bird, Schewardnadse. While Doro comes to the realization that she wants Axel back, Norbert is trying to find the perfect moment to seduce him—in Doro’s apartment. But when Axel is completely out of it on “bull powder” and Doro’s contractions kick in, Norbert takes her to the hospital, where a stubborn nurse insists he join Doro in the delivery room.
The sparkling comedy celebrates sexual and gender diversity with masterful performances by Rufus Beck and Joachim Król and an ingeniously ironic soundtrack featuring Max Raabe and the Berlin Palast Orchester (Palace Orchestra).
Director: Christian Zübert
Lammbock is the stoner movie of all German stoner movies. With a soundtrack featuring the likes of Calexico, Ween and German indie band Sportfreunde Stiller, Lammbock creates the perfect atmosphere for a doobie-smoking and pizza-munching audience in the grips of the Bavarian Polizeistaat (police state). Stoner movies à la Half Baked and The Big Lebowski have enjoyed popularity in the U.S. for a long time now, but this trend was only just kicking off in Germany, probably with the release of Bang Boom Bang in 1999. Funnily enough, they typically portray male potheads; female ganja enthusiasts are rarely seen onscreen. Lammbock is a pizza delivery service in Würzburg owned by Stefan (Lucas Gregorowicz) and Kai (Moritz Bleibtreu), probably the most popular pizza joint in town. The reason for this is simple: Their specialty comes with an ingredient of the intoxicating variety, homegrown hash. Kai, a bit of a hobby-philosopher, is content with life, but his best friend and partner Stefan is having an existential crisis. He is in his last year of his law studies and feels pressure from his father (Elmar Wepper), who also happens to be a judge, to get his act together. But when their plantation is infested with plant lice and an undercover agent posing as a supposed cannabis expert gets poisoned by mushrooms, Stefan sees his whole life going down the drain—especially when it becomes clear the only person who can help is his super conservative father.
Writer-director Christian Zübert was heavily influenced by Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith; take the usage of separate chapters and titles within the film, as well as the characters of Schöngeist (Antoine Monot Jr.) and Frank (Wotan Wilke Möhring), very reminiscent of Jay and Silent Bob. The dialogues range from deep, slacker-like sentiments to high discussions about whether or not they would give FC Bayern kicker Mehmet Scholl head (Mehmet Scholl is mentioned repeatedly and shows up in poster and videogame form on numerous occasions).
Director: Percy Adlon
Rosenheim is a town nestled between Munich and Mozart’s hometown, Salzburg. Very much steeped in Bavarian traditions, Rosenheimer people still proudly wear their trachten g’wand (folkloric costume) on national holidays, to the fairs, and on special occasions such as communions, weddings and family gatherings. Nowadays, even the most old-school Bavarian farmer men and women wouldn’t show up in hot foreign countries in their lederhosen and dirndls. But in the ’80s, when the Bayerische büffel (Bavarian bulls, i.e., stubborn Bavarians) were still reluctant to adapt to and accept changes, seeing a middle-aged woman traipsing through the California desert fully clad in a dirndl and a trachtenhut was still very much a possibility. Jasmin Münchgstettner (Marianne Sägebrecht) was one of these women. While on holiday with her husband, they get into a fight that ends with her marching through the desert, her suitcases in tow. She finally ends up at the Bagdad Café and its adjacent motel, run by Brenda (CCH Pounder), who initially comes across as constantly stressed and in a bad mood. Jasmin rents a room and tries to make herself useful, cleaning and tidying up with German efficiency, but Brenda is wary of the strange woman and her weirdo accessories. They both have man troubles and are dealing with a lot of changes, but otherwise the women don’t have a whole lot in common—that is, until Jasmin pulls some magic tricks out of her hat and their relationship evolves.
Although Out of Rosenheim focuses on the culture clashes between the two protagonists, it also beautifully depicts the self-fulfillment of women facing one of life’s many crossroads. The film was turned into the American television series Bagdad Café (1990-1991), starring Whoopi Goldberg in the role of Brenda and Jean Stapleton as Jasmin.
Director: Leander Hau?mann
Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, director Leander Hau?mann decided to bathe his audience in lighthearted Ostalgia (East German nostalgia) with the comedy Sonnenallee. Hau?mann recognized the importance of showing life in the former GDR from a positive angle, one he very much remembers from growing up right on the East/West border. The “Wessies” in particular were always quick to look at children and youths growing up in the former GDR with pity, a preconception Hau?mann wanted to change. Although the people of the GDR had no right to Western luxury products—be it certain foods or the latest Rolling Stones record—much of the younger generation didn’t view their childhoods as sad or deprived; after all, they never knew anything different. In Sonnenallee, Hau?mann introduces typical 1970s teens of the GDR who live on a street divided between East and West: Micha (Alexander Scheer), his best friend Mario (Alexander Beyer), and Wuschel (Robert Stadlober). When they’re not making fun of Western tour buses or not being observed like zoo animals by people looking over the wall from the observation deck, they’re usually busy trying to get girls or Rolling Stones records from the black market which, according to Hau?mann, were “more difficult and more expensive to get than cocaine is today.”
West Germany may have had records with their original seal packaging, but the East had fun too. Hau?mann deliberately avoids focusing on the real problems the Ossies faced, rather playing with humorous clichés and details such as the classic mufuti (multifunctional table), a typical ostprodukt (Eastern product), or the GDR-style Club Cola. It puts a fun spin on the many ingenious escape strategies during this time, with Micha´s mother Doris (Katharina Thalbach) almost attempting to flee in a comic disguise with a found passport. The soundtrack is also well thought out; acts like Nina Hagen, Die Toten Hosen, Ton Steine Scherben and Einstürzende Neubauten set the tone for this particular era.
Director: Marcus H. Rosenmüller
The German region of Bavaria has its very own language (it’s actually a dialect but so strong a one it can almost be considered a language), and sometimes, it seems, the region has its own set of rules. Bavaria is not only known for Oktoberfest, beer and lederhosen but also for the people’s heartiness and the Bayerische sprachgewitter, i.e., the Bavarian language storm. The dialect is incomparable and incomprehensive for the preu?en (spoken by a Bavarian, a preu?e is someone who speaks Hochdeutsch or general German and usually comes from the North), and the overall Bavarian conversational approach is pretty damn direct, if not harsh. Director Marcus H. Rosenmüller is from Hausham, a small town near the breathtaking Tegernsee where Bob Marley underwent medical treatment in his final days. As an original bayer, Rosenmüller really knows how to capture the stunning scenery of Bavaria’s lands, mountains, and lakes as well as the humor and the often stereotypical closed-mindedness, especially of the older generation. After completing his studies for TV and film in Munich, he went on to film the series Irgendwo in Bayern (Somewhere in Bavaria) for the Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Broadcasting) before releasing his first film, Wer früher stirbt ist länger tot, in 2006. Following the success of Wer früher stirbt, Rosenmüller went on to film the trilogy Beste Zeit (Best Times, 2007), Beste Gegend (Best Area, 2008), and Beste Chance (Best Chance, 2013).
Wer früher stirbt ist länger tot is what the Bavarians describe as a Lausbubengeschichte, a story about cheeky rascals. In the case of Wer früher stirbt, we’re talking about one little rascal in particular, 11-year-old Sebastian Schneider (Markus Krojer). Sebastian lives with his brother Franz (Franz Xavier Brückner) and his father Lorenz (Fritz Karl), who runs a local tavern. After one too many pranks, Franz flips out at Sebastian and finally tells him the truth about his mother’s death. Lorenz and Franz had always told Sebastian she had died in an accident when in fact she died giving birth to him. Franz tells Sebastian about purgatory, where sinners burn for eternity. Frightened by what he believes to be his fate, Sebastian is plagued by nightmares about the last judgment and hell fires. In an attempt to escape purgatory, he decides must become immortal and asks the men of the tavern’s Stammtisch (cracker barrel) for advice. Some of their suggestions include becoming a guitar legend and reproducing.
This is an excellent film that salutes Bavarian Stammtisch humor and Lausbuben in all their shameless glory. The backdrop of the Wendelstein mountain is phenomenal, as is the soundtrack.
Vicco von Bülow, better known as Loriot, was one of Germany’s most popular and beloved comedians. Born into an aristocratic family, Loriot followed in the footsteps of his predecessors and became a lieutenant officer in World War II. After the war he worked as a lumberjack for a year to earn his food stamps before finally attending the Art Academy in Hamburg. He went on to publish his cartoons in magazines like Die Stra?e and Stern, where he was quickly fired after offending its readers. From 1959 onward, Loriot starred as an actor in various film productions including Bernhard Wicki’s Das Wunder des Malachias (The Miracle of Father Malachia) in 1961 and Andrew Marton’s The Longest Day (1962). From 1967-1972 he moderated the show Cartoon, on which he introduced international cartoon films, including his own. His narrations became more comical until his actual performance became a focal point of the show. In 1976 he released his own series, Loriot, merging sketches and his cartoons and introducing classic TV family “die Hoppenstedts.” It’s almost obligatory for German families to watch the Christmas special Weihnachten bei Hoppenstedts, in which Grandpa Hoppenstedt buys his grandchild the game Wir bauen uns ein Atomkraftwerk (We are going to build a nuclear plant); supposedly, the game goes pooof! if you make a mistake during the building of the nuclear plant.
Pappa ante Portas was Loriot’s second movie, for which he was both the director and main character. In the film he plays Heinrich Lohse, a sales director who has been forced into early retirement due to cost-cutting measures. With nothing else to do, he throws himself into helping his wife Renate (Evelyn Hamann) with the household in the clumsiest of manners and ends up being more of a burden than help. The first time he goes grocery shopping for his family turns into an absolute disaster. Having always been absent in the day-to-day family life due to his job, he has become estranged from Renate and their son Dieter (Gerrit Schmidt-Fo?), and their attempts at communication become more and more hysterical. Renate and Dieter had found their own groove together and don’t really know what to do with the now ever-present Heinrich, who is making a complete mess of their daily routines. Heinrich tries to translate his managing skills into ordinary household tasks that results in, for example, the acquisition of a ridiculous amount of mustard. To escape her loopy husband, Renate finds a side job at a local chocolate factory. Left to his own devices, Heinrich comes up with a genius idea to impress his wife: inviting the TV show Die Schnakenburgs to film in their home.
Loriot was the German master of physical comedy and post-war humor, famous for his gifted portrayal of philistine characters and attitudes.
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist, co-author of The Pink Boots and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Facebook. She likes getting creative in padm?sana.