#15 Go For Zucker
One sure giveaway that Dani Levy’s Go For Zucker was made with some orthodox chefs in the kitchen is that during a scene depicting Shabbos morning services, the chazan and congregation abstain from using God’s name when reciting the Shema (instead they go with “Hashem,” a permitted alternative). There is well-informed talk of mincha and ma’ariv, milcheig and fleishig, a merrily sung bircas hamazon, and plenty about sitting shivah. Luckily, as someone with a yeshiva education, I’m familiar with these terms so an elucidation of the specifics was not needed, but Go For Zucker – an inexact translation of the actual German title (Alles auf Zucker!) - seemingly requires of the audience an experiential familiarity with modern German sociology, and as someone with a yeshiva education, I was lost. Clearly, the film which essentially swept Germany’s most prestigious film awards in 2005 has more depth than I am able to give it credit for. Germans take their art seriously and Go For Zucker, without the proper insight and intelligence, comes off as a scattershot, rather trying comedy, and not a particularly funny one at that.
Jackie “Sugar” Zucker is an unrepentant lowlife gambler and hustler, utterly irredeemable, owner of a bordello and mounting debts, estranged from his children (though inexplicably, his son is the debt collector for the bank trying to haul him to jail), and rightly on the brink of divorce. When his mother dies and her will calls for an orthodox rabbi to preside over shivah and observe Jackie (born Jakob Zuckermann) bonding with his long lost yeshivish brother in order for the inheritance to go to them as opposed to charity, madcap hilarity ensues (or so we are encouraged to believe by the DVD case). What the movie actually shows is a repulsive orthodox family replete with fat, piggish, money obsessed wife, attractive, strange, slutty daughter, reclusive, socially retarded son, and obstinate, hot-headed father. Jackie must contend with this motley crew while attempting to avoid shivah and play in a high stakes billiards tournament. His go-to (and always side-splitting) routine to get out of the three aggravating Shs (Shul, Shivah, and Shabbos) is to fake a heart attack. If this film’s intention was to bravely provide showcase for Jews to return to mainstream German entertainment, I’d say it missed the mark. Better to assume it rather reminded the good Aryans why they desired to be rid of us in the first place. Goebbels would have found the depiction of Jews in Go For Zucker promising.
I think Levy’s objective was for viewers to feel sympathy for Jackie and be somehow smitten by his tough-luck charm. From the oft repeated declarations in the film, I gleaned that we are supposed to pity Jackie because his mother and brother migrated to the western side of the Berlin Wall while he was left to fend for himself on the eastern side. It is clear that Jackie, unlike his bearded sibling, is a German first and a Jew fifth. We (again meaning “German audiences”) might also be expected to give Zucker an additional break and some latitude for his subhuman behavior because he admits from the outset that he is a (reluctant) Jew. The question from me to Levy is: Does Zucker deserve the pass from Germans because Jews are genetically unable to help themselves, or because Nazis tried to wipe us from existence seventy years ago? Or is the subject of the film simply irredeemable?
Levy said in an interview that Zucker does not feel like a film about Jews. Because of the chaos and humanity of the character, he claims that it’s like watching a film about everybody else or at the very least Jews from a new perspective. He adds that films like his remove the fear Germans have of Jews. A fear based in otherness.
When Jackie’s yarmulke wearing orthodox brother accidentally takes ecstasy and cozies up to a Palestinian prostitute, is that supposed to make him more down to earth and relatable to the average Jörg? When that same man’s daughter seduces her gay, stuttering cousin is that equally depicted to make comfortable with Jews our German brothers who perhaps fear how different we are? Or is it supposed to be ironic and edgy? Or, and I have no real reason to suspect otherwise, is it just a juvenile stab at a cheap laugh, Mr. Levy, at your people’s expense? I’m just not sure what the film is driving at. Here are Levy’s words describing some of his intentions:
“There are so few Jews in [Germany] that I’d say 90% of Germans don’t come into contact with them. A comedy with Jewish characters attempts to take people in Germany back to a certain reality.” He speaks about Germans having a guilty conscience arising out of their history with Jews and how irrational fears and inhibitions toward Jews have resulted. This, he says, is why it is helpful to make films like Zucker.
Odd that he feels the average straight-laced German will relate to the Jews on display here, forget their ethnicity, and accept them for the human beings that they are. The Zuckermanns seemed pretty loathsomely Jewish to me. So very peculiar a choice, indeed.
So what were all the awards for? Again, either I’m missing something contextual or as the first major German Jewish comedy since the cattle cars stopped running on time, Go For Zucker was rewarded out of a nation’s profound sense of guilt (kind of like Al Pacino’s Oscar for Scent of a Woman). Or maybe – and this gives Levy all the credit in the world – like the title, the underlying merits of the movie were simply lost in translation.