“Crumbled Communication”

Weihnachten bei Hoppenstedts
Weihnachten bei Hoppenstedts | © HR/Radio Bremen

Loriot, who died in August 2011, was one of Germany’s greatest comics. He delighted audiences for many years with the subtle humour of his drawings, and later also on television. Loriot never really wanted to make cinema films, but allowed himself to be persuaded at the age of 65.

When asked by Spiegel critic Hellmuth Karasek why he waited so long before making his first film, Ödipussi, Loriot replied by saying he had been brought up to be thrifty: “The expense involved in making a film appeared to me to be too great, as I believed that what I do is something I can also achieve in a much cheaper form, namely on paper or on the television in the form of a comedy sketch.”

Born Bernhard-Victor Christoph Carl von Bülow in 1923 in the small town of Brandenburg an der Havel, Loriot retained this modesty even after his major successes. His first cartoons, which appeared in the magazine Stern in the early fifties, met with a very lukewarm response. It was not until he moved to the publishing firm Diogenes-Verlag that Loriot’s vocation as a cartoonist actually became his profession. It was only a question of time before Loriot aroused the attention of television – a comparatively new medium in those days. His first TV show, which ran on the channel ARD from 1967 until 1972, bore the simple title Cartoon.

This was followed in 1976 by the six-part TV series Loriot, whose sketches are still familiar to many people in Germany even today. Although Loriot originally wanted “a blond, plump housewife” for his series, by the end of the auditions he had chosen the skinny and brunette Evelyn Hamann for the part, who from that point on was Loriot’s television partner. One of the best-known sketches is entitled Weihnachten bei Hoppenstedts (i.e. Christmas with the Hoppenstedts) starring Loriot as Grandpa Hoppenstedt, Heinz Müller as Walter Hoppenstedt and Evelyn Hamann as Lieselotte Hoppenstedt. Just like in his later films, Loriot gently mocked family communication and rituals in the sketch.

Mastering a difficult balancing act with aplomb

Although Loriot was already playing the parts of author, director and actor in his series of sketches, it was still a long time before he made his own film. It was not only the aforementioned thrift that posed an obstacle to Loriot – it was also the fear that his characters were only suitable for the duration of a sketch that caused the humourist to hesitate for so long. It is said that film producer Horst Wendlandt spent 15 years trying to talk him into it – an advance always at the ready in his wallet.

The desire on the one hand to remain sufficiently close to his previous work while at the same time distancing himself enough from it to be able to make a film was a difficult balancing act which Loriot mastered with aplomb in his first full-length feature film in 1988, entitled Ödipussi.

Ödipussi is close to his previous work above all in thematic terms. Ödipus, aka Paul Winkelmann, aka Loriot is a person who has certain difficulties communicating with others; as Loriot explains: “What I am interested in most of all are people with communication problems. Everything that I consider comical results from crumbled communication, from people talking at cross-purposes.” And naturally, the mummy’s boy – named simply “Pussi” by his authoritarian and resolute mother – is essentially unable to cope with daily life, battling with the usual “perfidiousness of everyday objects” and putting his foot in it time after time.

Loriot’s first cinema film, however, is no loose juxtaposition of comic sketches but a painstakingly narrated story, albeit one with an open end. Although the 56-year-old hero has managed to detach himself from his mother by the end, the apron strings have not been cut completely: when in the final scene we see Paul and his new love Margarethe, played by Evelyn Hamann, driving to Italy, it is not Paul sitting at the wheel, but his mother.

Ödipussi was well-received both by critics and cinema audiences. Loriot’s fear that a film of his could not generate sufficient revenues to cover the costs of production proved unfounded – on the contrary, box office sales of around five million in West and East Germany ensured full coffers and a Goldene Leinwand award. Ödipussi was the most successful German film of 1988.

“Men and women are simply not compatible”

Three years later in 1990/91, not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Loriot made his second and last film: entitled Pappa ante portas, the humourist once again provided the screenplay, the directing and the lead role himself. Pappa ante portas is all about failed communication too – perhaps even more so than in Ödipussi – and about the fact that men and women are simply not compatible, as Loriot explained in advance of his second feature-length film.

When eccentric and ham-fisted director of purchasing Heinrich Lohse is forced into premature retirement and finds himself ante portas – that is to say in front of the door to the house – peaceful family life comes to an abrupt end. Pappa insists on playing the part of purchasing director even at home and starts off by ordering 150 jars of mustard – to benefit from a bulk discount price. This not only drives his wife Renate – in another brilliant performance by Evelyn Hamann at Loriot’s side – almost up the wall, but for a brief period also into the arms of dreary chocolate bar manufacturer Ernst Drögel.

Communication between Herr and Frau Lohse not only breaks down but ends completely when Heinrich allows a film team into the house and the entire place gets turned upside down in the process of filming. By the end of the film the two of them are talking to one another again and decide to do things together from time to time in future – yet one has a sneaking suspicion that they will never cease talking at cross-purposes.

Given that it was so close in terms of content to Loriot’s previous work, it is hardly surprising that Pappa ante portas was also a big hit, recording box office sales of some three and a half million. Critics reacted somewhat cautiously than they did to Ödipussi, however, the magazine Spiegel even lambasting the film as a “trickle of senile sketches in an awkward story”. Admittedly, it is even clearer in the case of Pappa ante portas that Loriot is its author – but how could that be anything but a blessing?

It’s a pity that producer Horst Wendlandt was not able to persuade one of Germany’s greatest humourists to tackle the big screen somewhat earlier, as then Loriot’s legacy to German film would no doubt have been somewhat more extensive.