Highlights of european comedy

We are celebrating four European comedians – two solo performers and one duo, all of whom were legends of their time (with films ranging from the late 1910s to the 1940s), and all of whom, except perhaps Karl Valentin, are inexplicably barely remembered today. With the exception of Chaplin, American comedians seldom referred very directly to their times (think of Laurel & Hardy, Langdon, or even the Marx Brothers with the exception of Duck Soup). Differently, the European greats were profoundly historical figures, reflecting and even making history to an extraordinary degree. These comedians are history – the ironical Valentin and his incredible survival in post-1933 Germany, the Czech cabaret geniuses Voskovec and Werich who were the acme of European cabaret in the 1930s before their theater was closed in 1938, and Richard Massingham who personifies the kindly, practical side of life and Englishness in critical times.

Voskovec and Werich were the two brightest comedy stars in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s («the most revered symbol of a great era» according to Josef Skvorecky), born out of a wild combination of dadaism, circus, silent comedy, Czech jazz, and anything connected with the arts. They made four feature films, seismographs of the political currents of that time, handling the realities of capitalism and socialism with fantastic irreverence and remarkable intuition. Two of their films were directed by Jindrich Honzl, their regular theatre director, while Martin Fric, leading all-round entertainment man of that era, directed the other two.

The round, jovial figure of Richard Massingham became famous for showing his countrymen how to bathe in five inches of water. His mini-films, introduced to us by Geoff Brown, are an exceptionally strange combination of propaganda, belly laughter, and something more: who could resist being curious about a filmmaker that, according to Henri Langlois, was simply the finest in England, «Méliès and Vigo combined», both the greatest technician and the greatest poet of British cinema…

With his «grotesques», Karl Valentin may have been on to something more than even his wisest contemporaries. His body was a battlefield of anarchy and petit-bourgeois tendencies, and he himself was absurdity incorporated, a modern knight of the ridiculous in all senses – according to Ophüls (who created Die verkaufte Braut, one of his early masterpieces, with Valentin) he was a constant improviser, never repeating himself and thus totally unique – a man who does not tell jokes, but who «is a joke», as defined by Brecht, who considered Valentin an equal of Chaplin.

Peter von Bagh