Judge Daryl Loomis flunked out of clown college because he refused to carpool.
Shoot the clowns!
In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and Germany began its process of reunification—or Wende—a whole generation of filmmakers got their first taste of artistic freedom. DEFA Library's dedication to historically important, but obscure German film brings them to this time, in a DVD series called "Wende Flicks." This installment comes from director Jörg Foth (Biologie), a clowning satire about the citizens of East Germany and their reactions to all this new freedom.
Facts of the Case
Meh and Weh (acclaimed East German clowns and artists Steffan Mensching and Hans-Eckardt Wenzel), like all good clowns, are sitting awkwardly in a prison cell. One morning, they are released and have been granted the privilege of teaching their art in town. They revel in the opportunity, falling around and looking like idiots are what they know best. While their freedom of expression is novel to the townspeople at first, it quickly becomes a distraction. Civil order begins to fall apart and, for the sake of everybody, the clowns are kicked out of town. Now on their own, they find wild adventure as they travel to their new home, wherever that may be.
I'm not big on clowns; let's just get that out there first thing. The clown film begins and ends with Shakes the Clown for me, so the idea of musical German clowns was not the most exciting thought in town. It was, then, a pleasant surprise to find the whole of Latest from the Da-Da-R so nuts that the clowns' antics were muted and they actually became a touchstone to reality.
The story of Latest from the Da-Da-R is loosely constructed over a series of cabaret-style set pieces that have stream-of-consciousness relation to one another, but aren't connected by a solid linear thread. The film takes on more of the structure of a musical revue through a number of surreal situations. Steffan Mensching and Hans-Eckardt Wenzel, apparently, are a pretty big deal clown duo in the former East Germany. I was unfamiliar with them, but they are a talented twosome, both in their antics, if you like that sort of comedy, and in their music, which I actually do like. Heavy on accordion and in a Brechtian style, the music really makes the film move, carrying the audience along as the duo make their way, by song's end, to the next stop on their journey.
The title of the film is a play on words in two ways. DDR was the German abbreviation for the proper name of East Germany. Latest from the Da-Da-R, then, plays as both the latest from this East German comedy team and, more importantly, those the clowns perform for are current East Germans, they are the latest citizens of the DDR, and it's not a pretty picture. On top of that, the title is also a play on the Dadaist art movement. Groundless avant-garde art was unacceptable under the Soviet thumb, and the clowns' flamboyant public display of their art is met with violent resistance. When Dada meets the DDR, it is a very difficult thing for people so used to entertainment conforming to a party line.
DEFA Library, a group out of UMass, deserves commendation for releasing these films in the first place, but I do wish there was more attention to technical quality in the disc. Much of it surely has to do with the original materials they had to work with, but it appears that little has been done to restore image or sound. While the picture is full frame, it appears to have been the original ratio; there was no place where the film was noticeably cropped. The print is damaged, no doubt, and heavy grain and transfer errors mar this image greatly. The mono sound is adequate, but occasionally scratchy. The English subtitles are white and, against some of the brighter backgrounds, they were extremely hard to read. We have one extra that can be viewed on your player, with a couple other valuable resources as DVD-ROM content. The playable feature is Tuba wa duo, an eleven minute short film by Foth from 1989. A spiritual predecessor to Latest from the Da-Da-R, it tells the story of two tuba players who, now given the freedom to play their beloved horns, play incessantly. They drive their neighbors mad, who begin an increasingly violent quest to get them to quit. It's pretty funny and, without the clowns, is an immediately more accessible film that gets to the same ideas as the feature. On the DVD-ROM portion of the disc, we have an interview with Foth, as well as an informative essay. I'm never much for that kind of extra content, but they are valuable as resources, especially in a film school context.
My problem with clowns aside, Latest from the Da-Da-R is effective satire. It's an eccentric and colorful film that bounces along with good music and performances from Mensching and Wenzel. Interesting and historically important, but not as enjoyable as others in the Wende Flicks series.
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