As a young Prenzlauer Berg bohemian in the last years of the GDR, Leander Haussmann recalls going into a restaurant with an acquaintance one day. It was yawning empty, a “reserved” sign was emblazoned on every table and the waiters stood at the counter and smoked. “The two of us looked at each other,” says Haussmann, “and then we burst out laughing and left.”
Haussmann’s new film “Stasikomödie” is this laughter in a figurative sense. It’s not about the supply bottlenecks in the catering trade, it’s not about the mockery of customers, it’s not about wasting working time. It is neither analysis nor nostalgia nor indignation. It’s just a laugh at a system that deserved that laugh. Ridiculousness kills. Laughter sets you free.
In this sense, “Stasi Comedy” is a turning point, a bit like Mel Brooks’ “Spring for Hitler” two decades after the end of the war in its refusal of higher meaning. For a third of a century, patterns have been established as to how people could talk about the second German state. There was the Western pattern of “unjust state” in which the Stasi inevitably had to appear. There was the Eastern “Ein Kessel Buntes” pattern, which insisted it could also be lived quite normally. And there has recently been an attempt to save icons like “Gundermann” for historiography.
Neither of these patterns is served by “Stasikomedie”, and one can sense the irritation of this in some early reviews, who are at a loss as to what to do with the film. There is talk of “playing down a dictatorship”, of “transfiguring nostalgia”, of “a ‘life of others’ on Komödienstadl level”.
One critic complains that Jörg Schüttauf, as the former dissident Ludger Fuchs, “carelessly and indifferently carries his Stasi files home in a plastic bag.” How do you have to carry your Stasi files? Well protected in brown packing paper? In a padlocked briefcase? In any case, with a kind of reverence, since it contains the snitch version of one’s own life. Or?
Leander Haussmann’s father, the actor Ezard Haussmann, who was not allowed to act in the theater for ten years because he had brought a wreath to the Czech embassy after the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring, also came home one day after reunification with his Stasi files. Inside was the glowing letter of admirer from a lover that Haussmann’s wife knew nothing about. This situation is the starting point of the “Stasi comedy”, which then goes into the past of Ludger Fuchs, which turns out to be completely different from what the fame of the dissident writer wants to know.
Young Ludger Fuchs (played by David Kross) arrives at a traffic light at the crack of dawn on East Berlin’s Leninplatz, now the United Nations Square. The traffic light is red. There is no vehicle to be seen far and wide. The traffic light stays red for quite a long time. A steppe runner drifts past in the wind, like in classic westerns. Leander Haussmann has wanted to shoot a Western for ages. Ludger Fuchs is tempted to cross the street on red. However, he decides to pull out a paperback and begins to read, in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”.
And now Leander Haussmann decides to flip the scene completely. We continue to see the intersection, but now on a screen in the Stasi headquarters. The Stasi has everything in view, they also have a button with which they can switch the traffic light to green (or leave it red). Stasi officer Henry Hübchen is satisfied. A red light is like an order to civilians. Ludger Fuchs obeyed orders. He’ll become a loyal chekist, he’ll decompose this decadent scene in Prenzlberg (well, or she him).
It’s a great gag, sorry for spoilers, but that was necessary because it illustrates the main design principle of “Stasikomödie”: the constant alternation of hot and cold showers. Once, when David Kross messed up an assignment, Henry Hübchen asked him to follow him into the basement of the Stasi headquarters. There, as everyone knows, traitors and prisoners are shot. Hübchen puts on a pistol belt, but then … no, more will not be revealed, although that would hardly matter given the enormous amount of gags in Haussmann’s film.
There is no point in complaining about Haussmann’s caricatures. Yes, Ludger’s fellow extras are a pickle bunch, and yes, the Prenzlbohème in its worship of Allen Ginsberg and performance art comes across as terribly provincial. That doesn’t mean that Haussmann would only use these minor characters as shallow bangers; at some point – and be it late – he also allows them moments of self-compassion. Only a few, but still.
You can’t do anything worse to yourself or to the film than to expect a “reappraisal” of GDR history. Actually, he wants to laugh away everything, 40 years of stuffy dictatorship, 30 years of dead serious processing and a present that is not able to break away from the patterns of the past. The correct title of the film is “Leander Haußmann’s Stasi Comedy”, which should please both the brand-conscious distributor and the not unpretentious director, but above all the title emphasizes that it is a deeply personal view of things, without any pedagogical-representative claims – for that with a surrealistic quality that grows more and more as the film progresses.
In the credits we learn that there were two reshoots, usually not a good sign as reshoots are used to iron out problems in a film. One can imagine where the problems might have been here, in too much episodic and not enough structure. Ludger Fuchs’ dramaturgical path does not lead to any great goal, neither to purification nor to salvation, neither to a happy ending nor to death.
The path is the goal, and the path to the orcus of the workers’ and peasants’ state is peppered with jokes, allusions and disrespect, the likes of which have not been seen in a German film for a long time. The last one literally turns off the light in the GDR, and Henry Hübchen’s departure must be described as epochal.