Racism debate around “otto – the movie”: no more fun

"Otto – Der Film" is currently running again in some cinemas and is the subject of a discussion about racism and humor because of a problematic scene.

Otto Waalkes and Gunther Kaufmann in the sequence of the offense Photo: Wolfgang Jahnke/Rialto Film/dpa

Is a comedian allowed to use the N-word – or even to say "Bimbo"? Jacek Slaski recently reported an at least disturbing experience in the Berlin city magazine tip: With his ten-year-old son, he had watched a film with the "hero of his own youth," the 1985 hit comedy "Otto – Der Film" by and with the exiled Frisian and adopted Hamburg native Otto Waalkes. There was a surprising need for explanation in the scene in which the title character Otto (Waalkes) pulls money out of a rich lady’s pocket by offering her Gunther Kaufmann as a "slave" – also with the words: "Black head, black belly, black feet.

This is no longer funny today, and so Slaski wonders "what it means for a society that such a successful film plays so openly and clumsily with racist cliches and that this is not even recognized and classified". His unexcited text was probably not the very first on the subject, but it was a fairly early one. Since then, there has been an occasionally shrill debate about humor and racism; in the past few days, it has picked up noticeably again, and that may be because the film returns to theaters in many places this Thursday.

Otto Waalkes, who has so far said nothing about it, would not be one of Germany’s best post-war comedians if he did not know that the time for this joke has long since passed. In 1985, on the other hand, the use of this "German" N-word was common and not a racist insult – and thus not a cause for heated discussion. Especially since the context tends to work against a problematic reading: On the level of the plot, the scene makes fun of the hypocrisy of "fine people" who wouldn’t mind having a slave in the house – if only they were allowed to.

Also, Otto neither insults nor degrades the U.S. soldier (Gunther Kaufmann) picked up on the street, and rather amused than irritated, the man goes along with the prank. In general, Kaufmann (1947-2012), who became known as a performer with Fassbinder or also in legendary Bremen theater productions, plays the only character who is not a caricature – except perhaps for Silvia (Jessika Cardinahl). On the other hand, this female object of Otto’s desire is drawn so naively that the film can be called at least as much sexist as racist.

"Otto – The Movie." Directed by Otto Waalkes, Xaver Schwarzenberger. Germany 1985, 85 min.

The controversial scene – like the rest of the script, but also most of the numbers in Otto’s stage shows at the time – was written by Bernd Eilert, Robert Gernhardt and Peter Knorr, all of whom belonged to the "New Frankfurt School" of higher nonsense and wrote first for Pardon, then for Titanic. To be called "politically correct" would probably have been an insult to them. But they only ever made fun of each other in an upward direction. Even when Otto tries to make himself understood by speaking to a supposed migrant worker, the latter replies in polished German – which Otto, in turn, does not understand.

So how well has "Otto – The Movie" aged? As an infantile artificial figure, Otto is still funny. Away from his appearances, he never fell out of character back then; it was hard to fathom who the private Otto Waalkes was. Although their humor is completely different, Otto may thus have been a role model for Helge Schneider. In the 1980s, Otto belonged to the handful of artists who changed the popular culture of the Federal Republic. With two other important people in this sense, Udo Lindenberg and Marius Muller-Westernhagen, he lived for a short time in a shared apartment in Hamburg-Eppendorf.

Not aged well is one of the most famous and funny sequences: The idea of doing a parody of Michael Jackson’s scary video "Thriller," in which an army of undead Heinos rise at night in a cemetery and sing "Schwarzbraun ist die Haselnuss" to the marching beat, remains one of the decade’s best laughs. But Jackson and Heino now stand for something quite different from black coolness and white dullness, and good parodies have to stay close to their parodied idols on the one hand – but the audience has to know them, too.

"Otto – Der Film" took over many elements of Otto’s stage shows, including his version of the Comedian Harmonists song "Mein kleiner gruner Kaktus." What some people criticized at the time as secondary exploitation is an advantage today, because along the way the film thus offers the best of Otto from his best times. The authors Eilert/Gernhardt/Knorr have also found a nice twist here and increased the comedy: Otto appears in an old people’s home where no one finds him funny. The senior citizens laugh uproariously only at the spiteful comments of an old grump in the style of Waldorf and Statler from the Muppet Show. "Are you all there?" Otto finally asks, and to their "Yes" he replies, "But not for long!". Would people still make old jokes like that today?

With 14 million viewers, "Otto – Der Film" was the most successful German movie for a long time. At the time, producer Horst Wendlandt (1922-2002) knew better than anyone what West Germans wanted to see in the cinema and when, and invented the Edgar Wallace and Winnetou films, for example. Waalkes, in turn, made five more Otto films – with declining success. He made his comeback in 2002 as the dubbing voice of the sloth "Sid" in the Ice Age films. The premiere of "Catweazle," the movie adaptation of a British TV series from the 1970s, was planned for 2020.

"Otto – Der Film" was the highlight of WaalkesÌ• career. It is currently playing in some cinemas, but can also be seen on Netflix – still without cuts.

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