Those Wacky Germans!

'Go for Zucker' is a contrived farce, but it's still better than most sitcoms

I'm told that this film is something of a breakthrough in German cinema, in that it features Jewish characters but is not about the Holocaust. Strangely, in American cinema, there are quite a few films that feature Jewish characters and are not about the Holocaust. Pretty much every film that Steven Spielberg didn't make includes at least one or two Jewish characters who are not there to simply remind the audience of the Holocaust.

So as an American, I can't really see Go for Zucker as groundbreaking. It is, rather, a pretty typical screwball comedy, featuring a ridiculous plot contrivance, some witty dialogue and, of course, lesbianism, cousin-loving and orthodox Jewry.

The film begins with the titular Zucker getting a beat-down after hustling some pool. Poor Zucker is a man in his early 60s who used to be a famous sportscaster in East Germany, and then became a con man and legally sanctioned low-rent pimp in the West.

When he returns home with a bruised face and an empty wallet, his wife kicks him out for being broke and deceitful and smelling of cheap sauerbraten. The next day, a bank manager comes to have Zucker arrested for defaulting on a loan. Even worse, the bank manager is Zucker's son.

Then--and here's where the film gains an aura of what the Germans call "believability"--a letter comes saying that Zucker has inherited half his mother's estate. Of course, he can only have the money if he agrees to act as an orthodox Jew and sit shiva. And wait: He also has to have his long-estranged brother over to sit shiva with him. And also! He has to, in that time period, reconcile with his brother while a rabbi bears witness. And! He needs to jump into a volcano on the island of Waponi Woo to appease the volcano god.

No, wait, not the Waponi Woo thing. But the other stuff.

I wonder if people actually write wills with the intention of creating madcap comic situations. I'm guessing no. Still, it's a movie, so you have to cut it some slack.

The number of ridiculous coincidences and things that only happen in movies, but happen in a lot of movies, really add up. Zucker eventually becomes an almost nonstop series of plot twists. Who would have guessed that the ultra-Orthodox cousin is the father of the lesbian's daughter? Or that the rabbi and the Russian pool champion are actually the same person? Or that, just when everything falls apart, Zucker's prostitute/paramour would win the lottery and bail him out and then join a convent so he can be happy with his wife and children, who learn that they are actually adopted and that their real parents are Nobel-prize winning astronauts?

OK, most of that doesn't happen. But the stuff that does happen is basically like that, in that it would make the average episode of I Love Lucy seem plausible. But I guess that's the definition of "screwball comedy," and you can't fault a genre film for obeying the dictates of the genre. Or if you could, then we could claim that the problem with Star Wars Episode X: Twelve Angry Jar Jars was that it featured lasers and spaceships, and not that it just sucked.

So taking Go for Zucker on its own merits, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 7.5 being the highest, I'd give it a B. It's got funny moments, and Henry Hübchen has a certain smarmy charm as Zucker, but there isn't quite enough hilarity to make me forget that I'm watching a movie whose plot is loosely adapted from Seasons 2 through 5 of Three's Company.

Then again, my idea of "funny" is limited to blasphemous cartoons, Kyrgyzstani slapstick and sexually explicit implementations of the quadratic equation. So, as a test, I asked my more open-minded friend Carey to watch Go for Zucker. He thought it was a laugh riot. According to Carey, in spite of the plot contrivance, this movie is a success, because its humor is dialogue-based and not situation-based.

I thought that was pretty insightful: It's odd that in a film that's so full of absurd situations, writers Holger Franke and Dani Levy didn't stoop to using the silly plot as a comedic contrivance. Instead, they worked against the plot and sought to make the characters intelligent and interesting enough to convey the comedy. I can't say it always worked, but it was certainly better than most sitcoms. Perhaps that's setting the bar low, but this is a German comedy, and let's face it: At the end of the day, "great comedy" will not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the modern German state.

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