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Camera Obscura 15.2 (2000) 1-39
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"Happy Ends" to Crises of Heterosexual Desire:
Toward a Social Psychology of Recent German Comedies
In the 1990s, a comedy wave swept over German film produc tion, leaving a fundamentally transformed market in its wake. Assessments of how and why this genre developed and the kind of momentum it took on are only now emerging. Popular and academic work to date has approached these films through a generational model that emerged in the critical reception of the Comedy Wave itself. Such analysis, however, has brought forward only limited insight. In this essay, I will consider the Comedy Wave's relationship to greater social and psychological transformations in Germany. I contend that these films derive from much more complicated sites of conflict than younger filmmakers' rebelliousness. Within the history of the comedy genre, these films represent a specific form or subgenre that had significant resonance in Germany at a point of rapid cultural transformation. Of course, humor is one method through which the psyche contends [End Page 1] with anxieties, and in this humorous film genre we might recognize an almost therapeutic set of representations in the era after unification.
One central point to the genre, and a point with which the generational model certainly cannot contend, is that the humor of the films derives from a crisis of heterosexuality. This crisis gives the genre narrative structure, and I will explore what relationship it might have to the "therapy" offered here. Of course, in the history of comedy the institutions of heterosexuality have provided a good many laughs; however, particular crises of heterosexuality drive these narratives. Within the Comedy Wave, I will explore extensively how homosexuality provides the "happy ends" to the narratives, ends in both senses of the word. Here gay men take up a role that they have never had before in film history: they serve as facilitators of heterosexuality in a particular form. However, to begin this analysis, I will first turn to the specific material structures and historical transformations that gave rise to the Comedy Wave. I will then take up the analytic tools afforded us by queer theory, which will provide an approach to the dynamic of sexuality at work here if we push beyond the surface representations. To conclude, I will turn to an examination of the psychic structures at play in the films' crises and their relationship to social transformations.
Six Observations on Contemporary Conditions
The German Comedy Wave filled theaters with surges of laughter. It swept away the decaying structure of auteurist New German Cinema (NGC) and all its attendant difficult, heavy themes. A new generation of filmmakers rode the wave. With the directors of the Comedy Wave, producers and new star figures also rose to prominence in a film industry that had previously ignored them. It often seemed as if this were a comedy tidal wave, or at least so the media reports went. From Der Spiegel to Variety, news of this wave filled the popular press starting in the early 1990s, subsiding by 1997. It is now time, after the media hype, to assess what happened. We might discover that some of the flotsam and jetsam left [End Page 2] in the wake has been there at least since the 1960s, if not much longer. German cinema has been rocked by waves since its beginnings. Expressionist style, Aryan entertainment, Trümmer film, Heimat film, sex comedies, New German Cinema, and feminist countercinema have all swept through German cinema, transforming style and establishing new generic expectations. And within each we can identify miniwaves: the worker's film, the neo-Heimat film, the problem film, the Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) film, and so forth.
The press, filmmakers, producers, and stars have framed the Comedy Wave of the 1990s as a generational conflict, a rejection that repeated the media frenzy at the 1962 Oberhausen film festival, which began NGC. Recall how at that festival a group of young filmmakers led by Alexander Kluge held a...