Germans don’t really have a word for ‘funny’, which seems appropriate enough. The country’s reputation for humourlessness isn’t entirely unearned, as anyone who has heard their own joke explained back to them in clipped English knows too well. There are words that get close – witzig, komisch, drollig, humorvoll, and spaßig all somehow mean something close to funny. But the word Germans are most likely to use to describe the things that make them laugh reveals a culture that takes its merriment very seriously. English retains a certain suspicion of comedy: ‘funny’ derives from the Middle English ‘fon’, meaning to make ‘a fool’ of or ‘to be a fool’. When Anglo speakers say something is ‘funny’ it’s often unclear whether they mean ‘funny ha ha’ or ‘funny strange’. The German ‘lustig’, on the other hand, suggests neither madness nor idiocy, but pleasure and desire.
The greatest humour in the language has a kind of erotic intensity rare in the English-speaking world – Hollywood and Bollywood divisions between leading men and comic actors don’t really work for German speakers. The carnality and comedy of performers such as Klaus Kinski and Christoph Waltz have always been inseparable. Cary Grant used his wit to disarm his good looks. He made himself approachable and likeable by being funny. For Kinski and Waltz, by contrast, the comic often serves as a kind of seduction – you laugh at Waltz playing a Nazi and feel uncomfortable about the part of you that finds him compelling and attractive.
The lines between the comic (Lustspiel) and the tragic (Trauerspiel) have rarely been as neat in German-speaking lands. Take Till Eulenspiegel, Germany’s answer to Robin Hood. Eulenspiegel was an apocryphal wandering joker who delighted in fooling powerful nobles and wealthy burghers. East Germany’s main satirical magazine was named in his honour, and to play with his story has been a rite of passage for generations of German authors. Daniel Kehlmann’s recent novelistic account of his life begins with one of the trickster’s most famous gags: walking on a tightrope, Eulenspiegel convinces the citizens of a village to throw him their left shoes. Footwear was not taken for granted in pre-Industrial Europe. When Eulenspiegel drops them in a heap from his perch above the crowd, a mad rush to collect their property begins. One man is killed. Another is maimed. Till moves on. The villagers remember the joke as a moral demonstration of the pettiness and violence that lurks behind bucolic facades (the surplus of savagery of the Thirty Years War made for cheap laughs).
In English, we say a joke was a riot. In German, they mean it: einen Streich spielen, the word for a prank or a practical joke, literally means ‘to play a beating’. A coup d’état is a Staatsstreich. Much of the best comedy in the language depends on the possibility of real harm for its effect, and its early literature is full of brutal gags like Eulenspiegel’s manufactured riot. Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch (1668/1669) begins with the murder of the protagonist’s family by a roving band of soldiers, and follows him through conscription by various armies. He’s accused of espionage; subjected to deliberate alcohol poisoning in an attempt to induce brain damage; sentenced to death; shipwrecked; and enslaved. At some point, he thinks that by cross-dressing he might avoid conscription into yet another army, until the very real possibility of rape presents itself and he decides to take his chances fighting.
German literature later shed this kind of rude, brutal humour – the Bildungsbürgertum who became the country’s dominant cultural force were too high-minded for comedy from the depths. The canonical works that established German as the dominant language of Mitteleuropean culture were largely devoid of humour. Goethe distrusted comedy; he thought it indicated a malfunctioning of reason. The generations of authors who followed him inherited his distaste for the comic. In the late-nineteenth-century, German literary humour was consigned to the margins, and remained most alive in German-Jewish culture. The Jewish art of self-deprecating humour (on full display in Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious) was instrumentalised by Nazi propagandists who took jokes about Jewish dialects, miserliness and hygiene very, very seriously. Not that fascists didn’t enjoy Jewish humour – they forced their victims to perform humiliating cabaret bits in hope of forestalling the inevitable. But humour was never a Nazi strong point. Hitler’s favorite comedian was the Swiss-German clown Grock, whose gags included falling off his piano chair and treating his clarinet like a rifle.
The danger and the erotic charge of German comedy flourished after the war, when physical performance reemerged as a part of high culture. Once again, Germans staged mischievous interventions in the mold of Till Eulenspiegel. In Demokratie ist Lustig (1973), Joseph Beuys created a series of screenprints depicting the moment when he was expelled from the Düsseldorf Academy, where he had taught for decades, after protesting their selective admission policy. The screenprints of Beuys walking nonchalantly past rows of grave-looking men have an undeniably humorous eroticism. Beuys, with his wide and easy smile, seems lithe and vital next to the artificially upright officers. He looks like he’s off to buy ice cream. Beuys isn’t really funny. But he’s very lustig.
This kind of comedy can’t be easily contained. When it’s filmed – as in Werner Herzog’s Mein liebster Feind – Klaus Kinski, or Marcus Mittermeier’s Muxmäuschenstill – it’s a harrowing viewing experience, in part because we sense that Kinski’s sanity really is at stake. Often, German humour only works when it retains the status of a prank, even if those pranks sometimes become serious. Die Partei began as a joke political party in Germany but found surprising electoral success and now mixes a sober kind of leftish politics with provocative campaigning – they’ve faced legal challenges for a poster reading feminism, you cunts over a drawing of a bloody tampon, as well as for one that simply said: a nazi could be hanging here.
Germany’s most visible heirs to Eulenspiegel are the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit, a group of action artists who made international headlines when they installed a replica of Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe outside the home of far-right firebrand Björn Höcke. They follow in a tradition of left-wing provocation established by Christoph Schlingensief and Friedensreich Hundertwasser. But it is not inherently progressive, nor is prankery an exclusive property of the German left. The reactionary activist group the Identitäre Bewegung responded to the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit’s provocation by installing a Memorial to the Victims of Multiculturalism and Islamic Terrorism outside of the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin.
The German grotesque tradition is too akin to anarchy to have much in common with Anglo and Latin comedic traditions that grew out of the bourgeoisie’s ascendance in the nineteenth century. It doesn’t aspire to teach its initiates manners, nor instruct them how to laugh at both peasants and royals. That doesn’t mean it lacks an interest in justice. Alexander Kluge, along with his collaborator Oskar Negt, offers the sharpest theorisation of the connection between German politics and German laughter. They take the Grimm Brothers’ shortest fairy tale as the locus classicus of Germany’s grotesque comedy:
There once was an obstinate child who would not do what its mother wanted, so God found no pleasure in it and made it sicken so that no doctor could help it. Before long, it lay on its death bed. When it was laid in its grave and covered in earth, its hand stretched out again and when they put its arm back in and covered it with fresh earth, it didn’t help at all. The arm kept reaching out, time and again, until its mother took a switch and beat the child. Once she had done so, the child withdrew and could rest under the earth.
The tale isn’t funny. But it is lustig – the superhuman élan and stubbornness of the child makes an otherwise brutal story entertaining almost despite itself. The point isn’t to laugh, it’s to be captivated by the child’s mirthful obstinacy. The anarchical energy cannot be channelled rationally; it offers laughter beyond the horizon of survival. Germany may never have had a revolution – it was never witty enough for that. But the hand keeps reaching from the earth, insisting another world is possible.
Photograph of Joseph Beuys, Demokratie ist lustig, 1973
Courtesy of bpk / Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen / Sibylle Forster DACS 2023