Go For Zucker
Written and directed by DanI Levy. With Henry Hübchen, Hannelore Elsner,
“After a concert, a Jewish mother visits the piano virtuoso’s dressing room. ‘My son is so gifted, you simply must
foster his career,’ she says. ‘I never do that, out of principle,’ the virtuoso replies. ‘But my son’s a genius!’ the mother says. Without asking, she plays him a tape. The piano virtuoso is impressed. ‘Unbelievable! Your son plays like Horowitz!’ the virtuoso exclaims. ‘That is
Horowitz!” the mother replies proudly. ‘But my son plays just like him!’”—A Jewish mother’s favorite joke, told at her funeral, in Go For Zucker
Writer-director Dani Levy’s genial, bittersweet comedy, Go For Zucker
(Alles auf Zucker!
), has one foot planted in the traditions of Jewish comedy, which Levy has described as distinguishing itself “through its blunt, brazen and self-ironic treatment of human weaknesses and quirks—including the peculiarities of Jews themselves,” and the other in the comedy of what being a German Jew means some sixty years after World War II. The tradition in which that joke quoted above fits so firmly winds its way from vaudeville and Eddie Cantor all the way through Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. But Levy is looking to investigate new territory too, pitting two aspects of Jewish experience against each other in an attempt to discover how common ground can be found between two men, one who embraces religious orthodoxy, and one who has shunned it.
Funny, then, that he uses the morbid template of one of Germany’s most famous expatriate Jewish film artists, Billy Wilder, in which to ground the structure of Zucker
, a movie that will, despite its most outrageous conceit, find much more common ground and comfort with its more conservative impulses than with the kind of clear-eyed, brutal honesty with which Wilder might have observed this wacky (but not too
Zucker (Henry Hübchen) engaging in some grave fakery.
Go For Zucker
opens with narration alternating between cynical and hopeful, spoken by a man laying on a hospital gurney who is deep in a coma (and perhaps even, like Sunset Boulevard
’s Joe Gillis before him, already dead): “Life is a game. That’s the way I see it. I might be in deep shit, but things are looking good. New game, new chances, that’s my motto.” The man is Jacky Zucker, born Jakob Zuckermann in 1947, and he’s played by Henry Hübchen with a doughy, disheveled aplomb which cannot completely hide the slick figure he once used to be— a semi-famous ex-sports announcer and Berlin pool shark fallen on hard times since the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. (“I’m the typical reunification loser—made every mistake, lost everything,” Jacky bemoans at one point.) Having forsaken all matters Jewish when his mother and brother fled just before the city was divided, news now reaches him of his mother’s death and a large fortune he stands to inherit. The catch is that he must reunite with his estranged brother, Samuel (Udo Samel), and Samuel’s orthodox family must sit shivah
in Zucker’s decidedly non-kosher household in order for the terms of the inheritance to be met. And that shivah
threatens to wreak havoc with Zucker’s ability to shoot in a high-stakes European pool tournament, a victory in which would bail Zucker and his nightclub out of calamitous debt.
Speaking of debt, Levy acknowledges his to Wilder in the way the narrative flirts with politically incorrect humor—Zucker fakes a heart attack and falls into his mother’s open grave in order to get to the tournament’s first match on time—and the movie has fun watching Zucker’s gears and cogs spin as his health continues to “deteriorate”—a follow-up hospital visit begets another full-on fake heart attack and even a bout of phony Spanish flu—all so that he might bail on his religious duties and get back to the potentially lucrative business of billiards. But the way Levy has structured the two families, each with their corresponding parts and a role to play in the fulfillment of the other (as well as in the completion of the dead mother’s demands), is a bit too neat and tidy. Samuel’s observant Jewish wife Golda (Golda Tencer) is matched with Zucker’s not-at-all Jewish wife Marlene (Hannelore Elsner), who puts herself through some all-night cram sessions trying to absorb the basics of Jewish tradition, and who is more concerned with honoring Frau Zucker’s final wishes than almost anyone else; Samuel’s uber
-orthodox son Joshua (Sebastian Blomberg) has a past with Zucker’s diffident lesbian daughter Jana (Anja Franke) that is more complicated that he knows—it has something to do with Jana’s daughter, Sarah (Antonia Adamik); and Zucker’s son, a slick, stuttering bank officer who everyone assumes to be gay, finds a kindred spirit in Samuel’s black-sheep daughter, the irreverent, sexually promiscuous Lilly (Elena Uhlig).
There are many opportunities to stir in a more traditional Jewish humor with these stories, but they are only partially successful, and never flat-out hilarious in the way that the best Jewish comedy has frequently been. The way these threads play out and are woven back into Zucker’s story is heartwarming and satisfying as far as it goes—the problem is, none of them are as interesting as the character of Zucker himself, who is forced into embracing a tradition that means nothing to him, except on occasions when he can play the anti-Semitism card in order to try to grease an incorruptible tournament official. Levy builds to a very familiar reconciliation number which is played less sentimentally than one might expect, but also without the astringency that a stricter adherence to a Wilderian sensibility might have yielded. The movie’s conclusion is, fortunately, not built around whether Zucker can win that last big billiards match, but it still feels a bit forced and unnatural, with all the ducks being rushed into a row in order to accommodate a finish that’s just a beat or two too upbeat. It’s like what the “happy” ending of Wilder’s Berlin Wall farce One, Two, Three
might have felt like without the caustic irony of James Cagney’s narrowly focused fulfillment being achieved through even further embedment in the everyday corruption of Coca-Cola capitalism (and being hounded by an ever-present Pepsi logo to boot). Go for Zucker
has a fascinating subject at its heart—the pull of Jewish tradition in a modern German culture where it was once all but obliterated—but in the end that heart, as good and well-intended as it is, turns out to be a little too soft.
Dennis Cozzalio writes about film and, occasionally, baseball on his blog, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.
Copyright © 2006 by Dennis Cozzalio