… because you can raise a glass IN them.
On leave from my freelance Movie Analyst gig, last weekend I was in Frankfurt, and a fellow American expat and I were in search of a German movie to see. We settled on a romantic comedy, Anleitung zum Unglücklichsein, because among our handful of options, we figured this flick would be the least likely to ever reach American cinemas, even in a film festival. (It’s a dictum among film buyers and distributors that comedy doesn’t travel.) Plus, it was only 87 minutes long, and a better match for my German Verständnis than the 3-D historical drama about Alexander von Humboldt playing nearby.
Anleitung zum Unglücklichsein — to non-native ears, the title may not exactly scream rom-com — is a tad more sophisticated than comparable Hollywood entries in this genre. Instead of wall-to-wall pop oldies on the soundtrack, the score takes its cue from a subplot involving classical music, and there’s more casual nudity than you would see in a similar Katherine Heigl or Sandra Bullock vehicle.
It’s notable, though, how the cliches of contemporary romantic comedies have migrated from L.A. and apparently found a second home in Studio Babelsberg outside of Berlin. The heroine, Tiffany (Johanna Wokalek), is a plucky professional woman who has sacrificed her personal life to make her gourmet bistro in Berlin-Kreuzberg a success. (I wondered if ‘Kreuzberg’ is a signifier of urban hipness in German screenplays, the way Brooklyn might be in a lazy American script. In any case, the location is irrelevant here.)
Tiffany has a stable of co-workers/sidekicks who serve as a Greek chorus to her halting attempts at romance, and as if by movie studio law, her best girlfriend is shrewd, fun-loving and far more sexually forthright than she is. Tiffany’s suitors include a bad-boy type, in this case a Lothario policeman (Benjamin Sadler, who gives the movie much of its comic energy), and a nice guy (Itay Tiran) who’s more self-effacing but who nonetheless has a cool job.
The film is high-spirited, occasionally amusing and not especially memorable. The most interesting thing about it is that Tiffany is played by Johanna Wokalek, who brought an almost distrubing intensity to the part of real-life terrorist Gudrun Ensslin in The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008). True to the historical record, Wokalek’s Ensslin was a study in steely counterculture chic, a walking provocation to Bundesrepublik Ordnung even before the Baader-Meinhof gang sinks into ruthless fanaticism.
Thus it’s weird, and kind of funny to see the same actress mugging and cutting it up as Tiffany, a worrywart whose only real confidant is her pet toucan. Wokalek shows she can do comedy, but I can imagine even movie producers in Germany describing Tiffany as ‘a Jennifer Aniston part.’ In other words, it’s not a step up.
These criticisms only came to me in hindsight, however. The actual experience of watching Anleitung zum Unglücklichsein was by no means painful, given that I had a half-liter of German BEER by my side in the theatre — just the thing to make Tiffany’s romantic travails and the frequent appearances of a scene-stealing basset hound more amusing than they otherwise might have been.
That you can buy a bottle of beer or a glass of wine at the concession stand in German movie theatres has always struck me as an eminently civilized custom. It’s just one aspect of an overall ambiance in German cinemas that feels more adult than the teen-centric vibe of the average American multiplex. (I also love how many of the theatres over here find room to squeeze in a charming little cafe, no matter how tight the space.)
Having alcohol at hand does wonders for a moviegoer’s cinematic appreciation. Imagine how much more generous and forgiving the ratings on Rotten Tomatoes would be if both critics and audiences in the U.S. were able to imbibe while toughing it out through Cloud Atlas, say. Given how often Hollywood screenplays tend to run aground during the third act, buying beer or wine at the concession stand — and going back for a judicious refill midway through the film — might even be the smart move. If you came out of the movie feeling buzzed but a little fuzzy on how it ended, what would be the harm in that?
I saw Anleitung zum Unglücklichsein in a cozy neighborhood theatre with two screens. The other novelty besides BEER was that the theatre offered two ticket prices — nine euros for the back half of the cinema, 7,80 euros for seats in the front half. I was surprised that it was the front eight or ten rows that were cheaper; the cineastes I know would consider that a bargain.