The European tragicomedy

Published in incise – The CIS blog (Sydney), 6 September 2011

Everybody knows that the Germans have no sense of humour. Fewer people are aware that hitherto they really did not need one. They had Loriot.

Loriot, who passed away two weeks ago at the age of 87, was a cartoonist, comedian, actor and director universally loved by his compatriots – and little known outside German speaking countries. The latter is a pity because his comical works harbour deep wisdom. And that’s what makes them worth reflecting even in Australia.

Loriot’s humour showed a distinctly Prussian sense of perfection. Perhaps this was unsurprising for an artist born in Brandenburg as Bernhard-Victor Christoph Carl von Bülow, a relative of the long-serving Imperial chancellor Bernhard von Bülow.

However, in Loriot’s world this very Germanic exactness was often just the precursor of complete chaos and destruction. It was Loriot’s insight into human (or at least German) nature, and it bears an uncanny resemblance to Europe’s current state of affairs.

The Germans love Loriot because his characters are immediately recognisable to them. Even their names were carefully chosen to encapsulate their ordinariness, as Loriot once explained in an interview. A whole nation could thus find itself in the likes of Dr Klöbner, Herr Müller-Lüdenscheidt and the Hoppenstedt family. In fact, mention these names to any of your German colleagues or friends and their knowing smiles will make you wonder whether they are all related. It is only a mild exaggeration to call the Germans a Loriot nation.

The simplest definition of tragedy is one of innocent guilt. It is what follows from wishing to do right and actually achieving wrong. Loriot mastered the art of pointing out the hilarious aspects of such failure. But did that really make him a comedian? What most people, even most of his fans, overlook is that despite Loriot’s superficial comedy the tragedy is always just one thin layer below.

In one of his most famous TV sketches, we see a middle-aged man, perhaps a salesman, who is asked to wait for his appointment in the lounge of a luxurious villa. Everything seems perfect until he notices one tiny picture on the wall hanging slightly lopsided. His careful attempt to correct this unbearable insult to aesthetics triggers a chain reaction. Tables, bookcases and cabinets fall all over him and the previously near-immaculate lounge becomes a battlefield. And yet, as the poor man leaves the scene of disaster he just created the only thing he manages to say is ‘The painting hangs askew’.

The strange relationship between intentions and outcomes is a common theme in German literature. Goethe’s Mephistopheles describes himself as ‘part of that force which would do evil evermore, and yet creates the good’.

In Loriot’s works it is usually the other way around. This made him sufficiently pessimistic to pass as a German humourist. ‘Of course the Germans have as much a sense of humour as any other people’, he once said. ‘But they have a different value scale with the comedian at the bottom and the tragedian at the top.’

The political undertones in Loriot’s works are notable though he himself remained not overtly political, least of all party-political. However, he clearly spotted the same destructive drive towards perfection, which he had so often satirised in inter-personal relations, in the political sphere.

In an interview back in 1986, when a common European currency was still only a pipe dream of European elites, Loriot questioned why the drive towards uniformity should ever pass as progress. Of course, a common currency was meant to make life simpler he said but ‘this kind of progress is a burden of our time. Our time becomes less colourful; it becomes grey.’

Unlike most intellectuals who are quick to fall for the allure of grand visions, Loriot noticed the utopianism built into the European integration project. ‘Europe is a wonderful idea, but so was communism’, he once remarked.

Loriot feared the wish to build a common, integrated Europe would result in something much less desirable. The vision of a united Europe may well be appealing but ‘the peoples are not ready for it’, he said. ‘Jealously they will be looking into their neighbours’ saucepans and feel cheated. In this way, a Europe of friendly countries will turn into a fractious, resentful extended family.’ What Loriot predicted many years ago has turned into a sad reality.

Europe today is just like Loriot’s sketch of the lopsided picture. The European Union had built a near perfect house for its different peoples. It was orderly, prosperous and neat but it was not deemed complete for lack of a common currency. However, when this currency was introduced it had the effect of destroying everything that was once good about Europe.

If it weren’t so tragic it would almost be funny to watch Greeks complaining about the Germans stealing gold from them in the War, and the Finns demanding collateral for their solidary loans to the Greeks. It all sounds like a scene from a Loriot movie.

The attempt to make integration perfect has turned Europe into a disaster scene. Not even the Germans, with their inbuilt preference for tragedy over comedy, can be happy about this.

And with their greatest ever humourist now gone, there is not much left to laugh about. For what lies ahead the Germans really need a sense of humour.

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