NEW YORK — An attractive secretary enters a handsome executive's office; a close-up of her skirt zipper shows that it is closed. When she re-emerges moments later, she looks the same but the camera reveals that her zipper is undone.
Thus begins "Men . . .," Doris Dorrie's comedy of contemporary infidelity, male bonding and romance. The wink from director to audience in the opening scene establishes a certain complicity whereby we always see and know a bit more than the characters do, and are thus able to laugh at--and with--their foibles. This is perhaps one of the reasons that "Men . . ." has become one of the most successful films in German motion-picture history.
Although the New German Cinema has been the most important film movement of the past 20 years, a good laugh is not its salient trait. Whether the director has been Fassbinder, Herzog, Schlondorff or Wenders, the tone has tended toward the gloomy, the portentous--or at least serious--and the cynical. It was partly to counteract this Angst- ridden cinematic landscape that the 30-year-old director decided to tickle the public's funny bone.
"In Germany, things are hidden and people don't talk about themselves," Dorrie said. "Maybe that's why German films are so gloomy. It takes them a long time to show what they suffer from."
In "Men . . .," Julius (Heiner Lauterbach)--the ad executive who apparently undid the secretary's zipper--is then undone when he learns that his wife of 12 years has a lover. What eventually ensues is a comedy about the evolving friendship of two men and the development of Julius as a clever manipulator, a trait he clearly inherited from film maker Dorrie. The tall, striking blonde with a punk haircut explained how "Men . . ."--which cost a mere $400,000--grew out of her observing, listening to and learning to laugh at men and herself.
"I used to know a lot of men who were heavily involved in the '68 movements," she said. "I was five to seven years younger than them, and I watched them getting their careers going, having to put on suits and making a lot of money.
"Some of them tried to hide their new looks from their old friends. Others went straight ahead and joined golf clubs. Others tried to cope on a moral level: For instance, a dentist gave free treatment to leftists, trying to remain in some connection to the world he had been in.
"I never really participated in their conversations, but overheard a lot of things they said. My original idea for 'Men . . .' was to depict two sides of one personality. All these lines of dialogue kept popping up, so I just had to lean back and hear the two voices talking. I still can't be 100% sure of what men really talk about among themselves--that was the challenge of writing the script--but I'm happy that so many have told me it's accurate. I'm very aware that everything I tried to say in 'Men . . .' was made up."
Although Dorrie said that she "can't help having a female view of things because I happen to be a woman," the Hanover-born director defines herself as "a post-feminist. When I was a teen-ager, the feminist movement--although not over--had already achieved a lot. I didn't have to fight for things: It was all done by them. I never considered myself a feminist."
Dorrie said she does not believe that it's any harder for women to direct films in Germany than for men. "We have equal chances. But there's no private money around--and for a good reason: German films never make their money back." Then how does one explain the fact that 6 million Germans have already seen "Men . . ."?
"It's a matter of zeitgeist , and luck," she said, shaking her head a bit, the afternoon light catching the tiny jewel she wears on the pierced side of her nose. "I think Germans don't have a very developed sense of humor: There are no comedians around, nor screenwriters interested in writing comedies.
"In the 1920s and '30s, Germany was famous for comedies, including cabaret. But all of that was Jewish --screenwriters, musicians, cabaret performers, gag writers. The ones who didn't get killed emigrated to America--Billy Wilder and, of course, Lubitsch. When you're not surrounded by other people's humor, you have little chance to develop your own.
"Germany is not a funny country anymore. I do believe in what I call 'the school of laughter.' When I go to America, Spain or Italy, I have to adjust to a different pattern of communication, which always means a different sense of humor and irony. In Germany, when something is funny, it can't be art or culture. I keep wondering why Germans don't want to have fun. What pleases me about the success of 'Men . . .' is that 10% of the population went to see it in order to have fun. It's nice to sit in a German theater and hear people laugh."