Zettl The new film from Helmut Dietl

Chauffeur Max Zettl wants to get to the top.
Chauffeur Max Zettl wants to get to the top. | Photo (detail): © Warner Bros. Ent.

Twenty-five years after his cult TV series, “Kir Royal”, director Helmut Dietl has now come released a sort of “sequel” for the big screen. “Zettl”, as the film is called, focuses on the high-flying career of a ruthless media man in Berlin. As satire, however, the frigid figures in “Zettl” fail to warm up to viewers.

New York, New York. The film begins with Frank Sinatra and “I wanna wake up, in the city, that never sleeps / And find I'm king of the hill, top of the heap …” And that is what chauffeur Max Zettl (Michael “Bully” Herbig) wants – to get to the top. All the way to the top. The location he chooses is good: Berlin Mitte, a town with a New York attitude. Nowhere else in the world are there so many people who have no skills but still want everything. There is only one direction here, and that is up.

Zettl’s way to the top

Max Zettl is waiting in the wings for his big chance. The fact that he has little education and no qualifications doesn’t seem to be a problem for him. The decisive currency in this chaotic jungle of politicians, money and media people is ruthlessness, and Zettl has that in spades. His motto: Look for a personal advantage in every situation. He measures the value of others solely based on their potential benefit to him, and roams the streets of Berlin like a robot programmed by Machiavelli. He greets and smiles to people everywhere, but not because he likes them or is particularly polite. He simply knows they will be of use to him at some point.

More quickly than anyone can understand, Zettl is suddenly editor-in-chief at an ambitious online magazine. When he finds out that the mayor of Berlin, Dagmar Manzel, is really a man, he breaks the big story, but the situation appears to be more useful to him on a private level. Zettl, an orphan, blackmails the mayor in order to find his mother (who turns out to be the mayor) after having been separated from her by the Stasi state police before East Germany dissolved.

Satire or slapstick?

At this point, the viewer begins to notice that director and screenplay author Helmut Dietl had run out of ideas about how to execute the rest of the film. Dietl spent three years in Berlin gathering material, and the result was sobering. “You don’t learn anything, but it confirms a few things. It’s an experience, but I’m not sure if it’s a necessary one. You don’t get happier in the process,” Dietl commented in a newspaper interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The countless intrigues between figures in the film end up falling flat. We have all come to expect unscrupulous, unethical people to do anything, so nothing really surprises here.

Dietl’s efforts to shock viewers are so outlandish that the intended satire slips quickly into the absurd. It’s not just exaggerated. It’s inane. Take the scene in the elevator, for example, in which Zettl speaks in fake Chinese to the Chinese receptionist. It’s typical “Bully” humor that has no place in the film. Or when the exotic Asian design artist turns out to be your everyday Berliner. The “slanted eyes”, he says, were an operation in order to improve his chances in the job market.

No personable characters

Dietl’s film tries to show the mechanisms of an Americanized world that penetrates all the way into our private lives with its cold social mores. It’s Berlin as the Wild West, where only the strongest survive. Another metaphor that Dietl attempts to create is Berlin in a new ice age. Herbie Fried takes a photograph of the dead chancellor (Götz Georg) in the morgue. What is the dignity of a dead man against skyrocketing ratings? It is here that the film really gets into trouble: It doesn’t work as satire. Zettl is just as brutal as the society he is trying to expose. The characters of the film are as laughable as the real people they are based on and, as such, equally easy to dismiss. The film is missing a figure that viewers can get close to, get excited for or suffer with; someone who is fighting against all of this insanity.

That is what makes Zettl different from Dietl’s excellent TV series Münchner Geschichten (Munich Stories), Monaco Franze and Kir Royal. The figures there are not necessarily angels but their ethical sides certainly have the upper hand. They feel shame and regret. Even tabloid reporter Baby Schimmerlos has something we might be able to call a professional ethos, despite the profession itself. Director Dietl liked his TV characters, and viewers recognized that. In Zettl, we get the impression Dietl despises them, except the two leftover characters from Kir Royal: photographer Herbie Fried (Dieter Hildebrand) and Mona Mödlinger (Senta Berger), girlfriend of the deceased Baby Schimmerlos. Still, their roles are nowhere near as essential as in Kir Royal. Perhaps it would have all been different had Baby Schimmerlos been involved, as a second main character and a moral counterweight to Max Zettl. In fact, that is how Dietl originally planned it, but Franz Xaver Kroetz, who would have played Schimmerlos, felt a different interpretation would have been better and Dietl decided against using him.

The film has yet another problem as well. There are simply too many characters that all want too much, and there is not enough time for it all. The dealings, motivations and relationships between the roles are confused at best. Despite strong performances, one is left with the overwhelming feeling that the material would have made a better TV series, in which case it wouldn’t have been necessary to set the story in Berlin. Munich has plenty of characters like Zettl even 25 years after Kir Royal.