Why was the German comedy 'Head Full of Honey' a total flop?

"Honig im Kopf" was one of Germany's top box office hits. Til Schweiger directed a remake of his own film, but "Head Full of Honey" bombed in the US. As it's released in Germany, a film expert compares comedy traditions.

Seven million people in Germany flocked to see Til Schweiger's tragicomedy Honig im Kopf after it was released in 2014. That was reason enough for the producer and director to shoot a remake of his own movie in the US, where he once resided.

Head Full of Honey stars Nick Nolte, Matt Dillon and Emily Mortimer, as well as Nolte's own daughter, Sophie Lane Nolte, in the role of his granddaughter (top image). It made a total of $12,350 (€10,850) at the box office when it was released in English-speaking countries in November.

The New York Times review noted its "bizarre plotting and shrill performances," adding that "the film seems to have been edited in a Cuisinart." The British Observer described it as "Exaggerated, infuriating, and about as funny as a root canal without anesthesia."

Til Schweiger's career in pictures

The original German film: Head Full of Honey

Four years ago, Til Schweiger celebrated a huge success at Germany's box office with Head Full of Honey, which he directed, and in which he also performed. The leading role was played by German cabaret artist Dieter Hallervorden. The comedy-drama centering on a man with Alzheimer's disease was watched by more than 7 million people when it came out in cinemas in 2014.

Til Schweiger's career in pictures

Til Schweiger's quick start: Manta, Manta

After achieving his breakthrough as a good-looking beau in the German TV series Lindenstrasse, Til Schweiger made his film debut in 1991. In the comedy Manta, Manta, which pokes fun at owners of the cult German Opel Manta cars, he exuded youthful charm on the big screen.

Til Schweiger's career in pictures

Body cult: The Most Desired Man

In 1994, the young actor once again got to show off his toned body in the comedy The Most Desired Man (also titled, Maybe ... Maybe Not in the US). The film was based on comics by Ralf König, who's renowned for his successful cartoons dealing with the daily experiences of homosexuals.

Til Schweiger's career in pictures

Hit movie: a Star Trek parody

Early on in his career, Schweiger developed a strong instinct for picking roles in films that would do well at the box office. In 2004, he got together with the popular comedian Michael "Bully" Herbig in the comedy titled (T)Raumschiff Surprise – Periode 1, a spoof of the 1960s American TV series Star Trek. The German movie was a commercial success.

Til Schweiger's career in pictures

Directorial debut: Der Eisbär

By the late 1990s, Til Schweiger decided to work on both sides of the camera and started producing and directing films. His directorial debut was the 1998 film Der Eisbär (The Polar Bear), in which he starred alongside Karina Krawczyk.

Film scene of Barefoot with a man sitting on a toilet and a woman holding a suitcase (picture alliance/dpa)

Til Schweiger's career in pictures

Mixed reviews: Barefoot

Til Schweiger has become a household name in Germany. His works draw millions of fans to movie theaters. Despite his success, film critics do not always agree with the broad audience. Schweiger's 2005 comedy, Barefoot, for instance, also obtained several bad reviews; the star's relationship with film critics is therefore rather tense.

Til Schweiger's career in pictures

In a wheelchair: Where is Fred

Ignoring the bad reviews, the star continued to direct entertaining films, and his box office results have proven his critics wrong. In the 2006 comedy Where is Fred, he played a young man pretending to have a handicap in order to achieve his goals.

Til Schweiger's career in pictures

A total hit: Rabbit Without Ears

In the following years, Til Schweiger continued to be commercially successful not only as an actor, but also as a director — especially with female audiences. The 2007 romantic comedy Rabbit Without Ears remains one of the top 10 box-office hits in Germany. The award-winning work was praised by critics as well.

Til Schweiger wearing a gun in a forest in Inglourious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino (2009 Universal Studios)

Til Schweiger's career in pictures

In Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds

Aspiring to go beyond the German film market, Schweiger finally got his chance by appearing in Quentin Tarantino's 2009 alternate history war film, Inglourious Basterds. The star played the role of sergeant Hugo Stiglitz, a German soldier who murdered 13 Gestapo officers.

Film scene of Männerherzen by Simon Verhoeven/ Til Schweiger and Justus von Dohnanyi in a bed (Warner Bros. Ent.)

Til Schweiger's career in pictures

Playing with gender clichés: Men in the City

Nevertheless, Schweiger remained close to the German film scene. In 2009, he played a role in the comedy Men in the City, directed by Simon Verhoeven, which turned out to be a critical and commercial success. In the film, Schweiger's character goes from one short-lived affair to the next one, usually with women, but he also ends up in bed with schlager singer Bruce (Justus von Dohnanyi).

Film scene of Kokowääh Til Schweiger and his daughter (Warner Bros.)

Til Schweiger's career in pictures

Working with his family: Kokowääh

Schweiger, who has been very busy as an actor, director and producer, also got members of his family involved in his films. For some years now, he has been working with his daughters in front of the camera — for example in the comedy Kokowääh.

Til Schweiger's career in pictures

German crime TV series Tatort in film

In 2013, Schweiger also took on the role of detective Tschiller in Germany's popular TV crime series, Tatort. One episode, called Off Duty, even made it onto the silver screen. Its commercial success, however, was rather limited.

Til Schweiger's career in pictures

Alongside Matthias Schweighöfer

Along with Til Schweiger, another young German actor has recently become a top-selling name in the German film market: Matthias Schweighöfer. They both worked together in Wolfgang Petersen's 2016 crime comedy, Vier gegen die Bank (Four Against the Bank).

Til Schweiger's career in pictures

The latest: Hot Dog

Til Schweiger's latest German production was his 2018 movie Hot Dog. Schweiger starred once again alongside Matthias Schweighöfer, as well as Anne Schäfer, in the action-comedy directed by Torsten Künstler. It was a critical flop.

The film is now set for a second theatrical run, this time in Germany, where it is released on March 21. DW discussed how such a box office bomb could happen with Christof Decker, American Studies professor specialized in Film and Cultural Studies at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich.

DW: The movie Honig im Kopf was very successful in Germany; its English-language remake, Head Full of Honey, intensely criticized in the US and England. Is the understanding of humor different in Germany than in the rest of the world?

American Studies professor Christof Decker

Christof Decker: Yes. At least it has a different line of tradition than in Anglo-Saxon countries. I'm currently teaching a course on comic forms. We start with the silent movie era: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy. In these, there's a permanent dialogue with the audience that knows something the character doesn't yet know. This often results in something funny.

In the US, silent film comedy was relatively soon oriented towards a global market and was always associated with the question: Who is the audience, to whom is the production being addressed? It was always about taking the gag to the extreme, in other words, about maximum comedy. 

Is this more difficult with German comedy?

Since sound was introduced to film, this has been been grounded in a language problem. So the question is not so much about whether German comedy can be exported or not, but whether German comedy be translated into a form that is compatible with what a different audience would expect?

The cliché about Germans is that they are too grim and have no sense of humor.

I don't believe that this idea, which in cultural studies is called essentialism and which suggests something of an innate defect, is true. People in Germany have a sense of humor. In film and television, however, what's lacking is a professional environment that drives people to be truly innovative, to go one step further and not to be satisfied with what is more or less successful.

Because you know what works and is sufficient to reach a certain audience and a certain number of viewers?

Yes, you can only achieve this advanced professionalism, of course, if you don't just appeal to the familiar audience, but take risks saying: This should interest and be understood by a much larger audience. This connectivity for a heterogeneous and diverse audience is very often missing in the German context.

Read more: 10 traditional types of German jokes

It tells the same story about a man suffering from Alzheimer's disease: The original 'Honig im Kopf' was a huge box-office hit

Breaking down classic genres

Why does it work the other way around; why do we watch US comedies based on pure slapstick?

For comedy to work, there needs to be not only perfect timing but also a certain lightness. Slapstick is hard work, but at its best, it looks effortless. German comedies, on the other hand, often seem cumbersome and troubled. Even in quite formulaic US formats like the romantic comedy, characters seem uninhibited about themselves.

Take for example the comedian Amy Schumer, who dismantles a classic genre. The US system has also succeeded in discovering age as a source of morbid comedy that is also amusing, as seen for example in the Netflix sitcom Grace & Frankie.

Are stereotypes the biggest problem in German comedy?

Not necessarily. Every comedy works with stereotypical characters and these are always associated with sharpness. German comedies, however, lack a certain radicalism and ruthlessness when it comes to dealing with stereotypes. Stereotypes are a central element in the aesthetics of comedy. The question is: How far can one go with this representation? And here the Anglo-American forms of comedy are often much more radical in view of their outbidding logic. They tend to transcend borders. The motto for the gag writers around Stan Laurel was: "Can you top this?"

Read more: Can you call your baby Adolf?

Laurel and Hardy are popular around the world

Are there historical reasons for that?

Yes, the comic is also a means of negotiating cultural conflicts. In German comedy, people are always reserved about hurting someone else. In the US, around the turn of the century, an audience developed in popular culture that could not be considered homogeneous. It always involved marginal groups as well. In a sense, in the early days of mass and popular culture, American audiences represented a global audience in small form, consisting of different religious, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. One of Charlie Chaplin's famous short films is called The Immigrant. These groups had to be included in some way.

Read more: Comedy's Great Dictator: Charlie Chaplin's persona lives on

And what they all had in common was the experience of exclusion?

In a way, yes. In the US, there is a very different cultural driving force that emerges from a very heterogeneous and dynamic society. Jewish or African-American comedy comes from a historical position of discrimination, for example from a long history of slavery. The stereotypes must then be radical, because comedy is often the only means for minorities to defend themselves. It often refers not only to the "opponent" of the majority society, but also to its own group, which with its inferiority complexes becomes the target of comedy.

A homogeneous public

So German films are intended for an audience that is too homogeneous?

The implicit addressee is often a white, homogeneous middle-class that wants to see its lifestyle confirmed by comedy and that regulates the weird, the intellectual, the non-conformist. As a result, many areas of comedy remain untouched, not reaching a global audience. When I compare the situation with other cultural areas, I can use [Schlager] folk music as a comparison; that is a genre that only works in German-speaking countries and is not exported, because people elsewhere do not understand what might be attractive about it.

Considering this in the context of the Head Full of Honey remake, this means that instead of condescendingly claiming that this film is too demanding for US audiences, it would have to mean the other way round: We Germans are too undemanding in what we watch in our own cinemas?

For the comedy this is likely true, as expectations seem to be relatively low. I see here a real dilemma of German cinema: Comedy is by far the most successful genre that has been produced in Germany in recent years, as you can see in the Fack Ju Göhte series. At the same time, German film comedy only seems so successful if it retains its provincial character and is not cosmopolitan.

The film Welcome to the Hartmanns, one of the most financially successful comedies in recent times, illustrates a fundamental problem of German film comedy: It cannot do without the tendency to combine comedy with moral views or doctrines in order to confirm the status quo from the point of view of the majority society — especially not from the margins. 

KINO favorites: Top 10 German comedies

#10: Men

This hilarious comedy by director Doris Dörrie had originally been planned for television. Finally, the producers decided to show "Men" in movie theaters - a wise choice. Thirty years ago, roughly six million people laughed their heads off watching this movie about men and women relationships, starring German actors Ulrike Kriener, Heiner Lauterbach and Uwe Ochsenknecht.

KINO favorites: Top 10 German comedies

#9: Fack Ju Göhte

Over seven million people headed to the theaters to see "Fack Ju Göhte," by Bora Dagtekin. The title of the comedy is an intentional misspelling of "Fuck you, Goethe," mocking German students' random orthography. It's about a teacher, who isn't really a teacher, and his bored-to-death pupils. Despite the sludge, actor Elyas M'Barek's sex appeal conquered the hearts of countless teenie girls.

KINO favorites: Top 10 German comedies

#8: Manitou's Shoe

"Manitou's Shoe" was one of the most successful films at the German box office since the 1960s, with more than 11 million tickets sold. Comedian Michael "Bully" Herbig, who originally worked for radio and television, received much praise - and laughter - for his parody of the schmaltzy, tear-jerking German Winnetou films.

KINO favorites: Top 10 German comedies

#7: Go for Zucker

In 2004, director Dani Levy celebrated a huge and surprising success at the box office with his comedy "Go for Zucker." This movie about the financial and private problems of an unemployed sports reporter from former East Germany portrays Jewish identity in present-day Germany in a sensitive, yet humorous way - certainly not an easy task.

KINO favorites: Top 10 German comedies

#6: Grave Decisions

In this film, released in Germany under the title "Wer früher stirbt, ist länger tot" (literally: The sooner you die, the longer you're dead), director Marcus H. Rosenmüller tells the story of an 11-year-old dealing with a revelation on how his mother died. The comedy plays with the particular charm and the peculiarities of Bavarians.

KINO favorites: Top 10 German comedies

#5: Wir sind die Neuen

In 2014, director Ralf Westhoff turned an original idea into a fresh comedy on living as roommates. "Wir sind die Neuen" (We are the new ones) tells the story of three aging friends in Munich who used to share a flat in college and decide, years later, to live together again - amidst a much younger trio of students. This movie offers a humorous exploration of intergenerational relations.

Deutschland berühmtester Humorist Loriot ist tod

KINO favorites: Top 10 German comedies

#4: Ödipussi

In the 1980s, Vicco von Bülow, aka Loriot, was a highly popular television comedian in Germany. He delighted his fans of all ages by writing, directing and starring in "Ödipussi." Loriot landed on the big screen, although the film was not exactly a traditional comedy, but rather a series of sketches - and they were insane and hilarious, yet extremely subtle.

KINO favorites: Top 10 German comedies

#3: Almanya: Welcome to Germany

In 2011, Yasemin Şamdereli was not the first to direct an intercultural comedy in Germany, but her movie was the first one to become so successful: "Almanya: Welcome to Germany"("Almanya" is the Arabic and Turkish word for Germany) tackles problems such as identity and integration in a funny, ironic and feel-good way, by laughing at the clichés surrounding both Germans and Turks.

KINO favorites: Top 10 German comedies

#2: Look Who's Back

Is it possible and OK to laugh about Hitler? Novelist Timur Vermes and film director David Wnendt decided it was. The film adaptation, like Vermes' bestseller, approached the deadly serious topic of Nazism with humor. Wnendt built in documentary archives into the fictional scenes, adding quite a few dark - and controversial - jokes on the Nazi era and its leader, Adolf Hitler.

KINO favorites: Top 10 German comedies

#1: Good Bye, Lenin!

Another topic of German history became a hit on the big screen: With his hilarious comedy "Good Bye, Lenin!" (2003), director Wolfgang Becker explored the fall of the Berlin Wall and the cultural differences between former East and West Germany. The film received several awards. It also made actor Daniel Brühl famous overnight. He still lives off that role - and maybe will forever.

Morality as a stumbling block

Could you point out a positive example of a German comedy?

A positive counterexample — certainly not the only one — is Loriot, who was a perfectionist in orchestration and precise timing. He was also inspired by Monty Python, who cultivated nonsense and didn't want to reduce his comedy to a simple moral formula. He also had a strong penchant for physical comedy and has always appealed to his audience as intelligent. Interestingly, he was able to develop his broadcast format on television and only partially managed to do so in later films.

Read more: 'Mein Kampf' is appropriate for Texas prisons, 'Monty Python' not so much

So the German formula of adding moral judgments is what's ruining the joke?

That is undoubtedly a fundamental problem of German comedy, which can be traced back to the early decades of the talkies and back to the UFA films  and which continued into the 1950s. It was not exportable even then, but has remained the only successful tradition within Germany.

Is this a response to history: A longing for a good mood and a healthy world after the war?

After the war, the point of departure for comedy was certainly not geared towards innovation. As points out film historian Thomas Brandlmeier, we have to go back to the 18th century to explain the rise of bourgeois society. He speaks of a special German form of comedy, where different stage traditions were sworn into a moral function at that time. For comedy, this meant the dominance of the play-on-words jokes and the expulsion of the grotesque harlequin from the stage. It was replaced by the likeable, the pleasant, the ordinary.

In the US, on the other hand, a democratic culture developed at this time, for which comedy became an equally entertaining and sharp weapon in the omnipresent struggle for recognition and rights. Both lines of tradition can still be seen today.

The best classic movie comedians

A famous comical duo

Stan & Ollie (Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel) acted together in about 200 films, even as far back as the silent film era. Whatever the duo - much beloved as "Fat and Stupid" in Germany - is up to, it inevitably ends in disaster. America's most successful comedian pair were undoubtedly masters of slapstick.

The best classic movie comedians

Beyond slapstick

Charlie Chapin didn't skimp on slapstick, for instance in "The Tramp," but he also wove social criticism into his films. In the 1925 film "The Gold Rush," poverty is the theme, and his character is so desperately hungry that he eats shoe soles. The 1936 "Modern Times" takes on capitalism, and "The Great Dictator" in 1940 lampooned Adolf Hitler.

The best classic movie comedians

Let loose on camera

Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo - the Marx Brothers - were the first to really focus on language in their films, taking turns with visual and verbal gags. Groucho's irreverent remarks in particular had people roaring with laughter. As a rule, the film's story would take place in a confined environment, like an opera house, where the brothers would wreak havoc with their trademark anarchy.

The best classic movie comedians

The rapid-fire joke

Goggle-eyed with a jutting chin and a sly grin: Bob Hope's facial expressions were funny. Critics also loved his timing and his jokes in the tradition of the Marx Brothers. They gave the popular actor and comedian the nickname "Midas of Comedy."

The best classic movie comedians

A giant of French comedy

The audience adored Louis de Funes, the short French actor who exploded into fits of lunacy, the choleric character who kowtowed to authorities but bullied everybody else in his films in the 1960s and 1970s. Funes' films - in France, he was known fondly as "Fufu" - were international box office hits.

The best classic movie comedians

The absurd situation

For 10 years, Rowan Atkinson developed the character of Mr. Bean before he made his debut in 1990 in Britain. Hilarious, silly, selfish, but a likeable buffoon all the same, Mr. Bean comes up with the oddest, most awkward solutions to everyday situations. He rarely says a word in the sketches, but he certainly makes up for it with rolled eyes and grimaces.

The best classic movie comedians

Intelligent humor

Monty Python-style humor is absurd, surreal, anarchistic and inky black. The above scene from the 1979 film "The Life of Brian" is legendary, with crucified men happily singing "Always look on the bright side of life." The British comedy group's humor is also intelligent, combining slapstick with philosophical and historical references in its films and many sketches.

The best classic movie comedians

German king of comedy

For decades, Vicco von Bülow alias Loriot had millions of Germans in stitches with his sketches, cartoons and feature films. His humor often centered on miscommunication, and he typically ridiculed middle-class family scenarios. He was a prolific humorist, writer, actor and talented cartoonist.

The best classic movie comedians

The art of deadpan comedy

The role of police lieutenant Frank Drebin catapulted Canadian actor Leslie Nielson to international comedy fame in the late 1980s. What amounted to a veritable fireworks of slapstick in the "Naked Gun" crime comedy trilogy got more than a few laughs. The actor was also adept at imitating the exasperated look Oliver Hardy would give his partner - a clear homage to the comic duo.

The best classic movie comedians

The exaggerated face

Nobody does extreme facial expressions like Jim Carrey. He lent his trademark talent to his characters in "The Mask" and "Dumb and Dumber," giving them an unmistakable look The 2004 romantic comedy "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" demonstrates the breadth of Carrey's skill.

The best classic movie comedians

No holds barrred

Using accents and guises to portray fictional characters Ali G, Borat or Brüno, British actor Baron Cohen asks interview partners absurd questions studded with racial cliches. Cohen's mockumentaries - a combination of documentary and fiction - are revealing snapshots of society.