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How filmmaker Dani Levy defines modern Jewish humor

Scott Roxborough interview
October 12, 2016

Movie director Dani Levy became renowned with a comedy on Jews in present-day Germany and another one on Hitler. He's back with a new film on a dysfunctional family. He told DW how he perceives Jewish humor.

Regisseur Dani Levy
Image: DW/H. C. von Bock

Deutsche Welle: Why did you choose the medium of comedy to tell your stories?

Dani Levy: I see comedy in a lot of things I experience. Life is sometimes so tough and unbearable that sometimes we really don't know where we belong, what our life means. And I think that humor can not only offer comfort but also help in understanding certain conflicts we have - especially with family or friends. Comedy is always a good way to reach other people without depressing them; it's a way to get into other people's chaos and disaster without suffering too much.

You're Jewish and I think it's fair to say your movies fit into a particular Jewish tradition of comedy. What's so special, so unique about Jewish humor?

I don't even think about it: I was just born into it. It's me. It's my cultural upbringing, it's the way I look at reality, it's the way I look at cinema, it's the way I look at whatever. I cannot get out of my skin, so I just do it. I don't question it. But in general, I would say Jewish humor is warm-hearted. I think it can be quite subversive, in a way. It's not just screwball comedy - there's always tragedy behind the comedy.

It is a humor that is on the way to understand something. For me it is always mainly curiosity-driven. I don't care if it is a tragic or a comical moment, I just want to know more about the character in the movie, how he functions, why he is so depressed now, what his relationship to his daughters is, where he's going… 

It's like I'm digging and sometimes this digging is funny, without knowing. And I write it, or I direct it, and at the end the film is ready and I don't even feel it's funny and the people are laughing in the cinemas and I say "oh that's interesting," because maybe they are searching for the same thing. And that might be something that is Jewish humor: Jewish humor is very close to human beings, it's psychoanalytic.

Film still from Go for Zucker!
Scene from the hit comedy "Go for Zucker!"Image: Imago//United Archives

With "Go For Zucker!" you made an authentic German Jewish comedy - probably the first since the 1930s. It's the story of a Berlin Jew, who's not religious but deep in debt and in order to inherit his mother's money, he has to fulfill her dying wish and make peace with his very orthodox brother.

The film was a huge hit. What was it about the film, why did German audiences go for Zucker?

It was the right film at the right time. At first, the broadcasters were afraid people would see it as anti-Semitic. And I said "No, this is a modern way of dealing with Jewishness." We aren't laughing at them but with them. And Jews can be very funny, very ironic and very cinematic as well. And I think somehow this instinct was right. It was time for this movie.

It was sold with the idea that Germany was waiting for the first Jewish comedy set in Germany, now - and without the Holocaust. It's like: Jews, believe it or not, are still living here. I think that's one reason it was successful.

The second reason is that it is just a funny, entertaining movie. It's someone who is in such deep shit that you want to observe him and want to be part of his mess.

What did it mean for you, to see this film so embraced here in Germany?

It was overwhelming. But I, how can I say it? I knew I had to profit from this success. The movie that I made right after was "My Führer." I knew I could make it once in my life, and I made it. I knew exactly: this is the most subversive movie I can do, right now.

I wanted to make a movie filled with the hate that I had against other movies that were made in this country about the Nazis that I thought don't work at all. I wanted to my make my Jewish dysfunctional movie about Adolf Hitler and about Adolf Grünbaum who is coaching him. And I was on this wave of success and people gave me the money and I did it. It was the only time in my life that I could finance a movie right away.

Still from Mein Führer
In "My Führer," Hitler hires a Jewish acting coach to help him prepare a big speech in 1945 Image: X-Verleih

So what did you learn from that experience? Of making your most extreme, controversial film, of going further than you ever could have gone before?

I learned that it's never too far. Just go further, go further. I tried to be as extreme as I could. But it's really hard because you are surrounded by people who are trying to convince you that you need to be reasonable and that you need to control your risk. But it is not the case. I think movies are there to stretch limits and to go as far as you can.

"My Führer" is a very extreme movie because I didn't follow the clichés that were expected from a Dani Levy film about Nazis. It empathizes with Hitler's psychic structure and people couldn't take it. They thought I wanted to excuse Hitler or something… It was a weird discussion.

Let's talk about your new film, "Die Welt der Wunderlichs." It's a about a family with pretty much every psychological disorder you can think of: manic depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD. And at the center, a single mom under assault from all sides. Why should we be interested in this, literally, crazy family?

Film still Die Welt der Wunderlichs
Dani Levy's new film, "Die Welt der Wunderlichs," is a tribute to single moms and our dysfunctional worldImage: Filmfest München 2016

First of all, I think we're all crazy, right? I mean psychotic disorders are in the midst of our society. We're not "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" anymore, we're further down the road.

We know that it is pretty hard to survive in this world. We are all desperate about our lives.

Some people are more or less happy about what they do and some people do have highs and lows but they are mainly balanced but some people don't. And I thought this is something that is really worth a comedy.

It sounds like it's a tragedy but in reality there is so much bi-polar comedy in it because the tragic moments can be comic and the comic moments can be deeply sad.  For me it is something that is so essential in my life and in the life of my friends that I felt I had to make a movie about it.

Plus the single mother character: single mums are the heroes of our time, because there are so many, first of all, and because they have to manage a complicated life. It often seems to be these women's fate to be sucked up by families that are complicated or by a personal situation with kids that are complicated or that are really challenging in a way and they don't have the space or the time or the belief that they can do what they want and live their own dreams. It was very important for me to dedicate this movie to all the women who are not in a situation to fulfill their lives.

Do you think comedy can help when it comes to psychic disorder and the general chaos of life?

Comedy can always help, I think. I don't believe it changes the world, but it can help understanding. And it can help by dealing with conflicts that are otherwise too painful. Comedy is like bringing a light into a dark zone and say: look at it, it looks pretty weird and it looks complicated but if you lighten it up, there are some good aspects in it.