Imagine Jay Leno and David Letterman in a black comedy in which Leno plays a ratings-hungry program director and Letterman a radio DJ he smarms into becoming a chatshow host. That’s “Late Show,” a slick, marvelously played satire on commercial TV starring Germany’s top two talkshow hosts, Harald Schmidt and Thomas Gottschalk. Following a hefty promo campaign by distrib Constantin, pic opened strongly Feb. 25 and is still holding its own. Problem with offshore sales is that, though commercial TV is still a relatively new phenom in Germany, it’s a subject that has long been mined for grim laughs elsewhere. Present item, though entertaining, doesn’t have any fresh angles.
Set in Cologne (the hub of German commercial TV), pic centers on Tele-C, housed in a typical steel-and-glass modern monstrosity and run by program director Conrad “Conny” Scheffer (Schmidt) and his right-hand woman, Carla Sperling (Jasmin Tabatabai, from “Bandits”), a high-strung bitch on wheels. Tele-C’s ratings are plummeting, its biggest drama-series star, Maria (Veronica Ferres), has quit, and the station’s backers are getting nervous. Conny needs a brilliant idea.
His solution is ruggedly handsome Hannes Engel (Gottschalk), a latenight music-and-chat broadcaster in the sticks, who happens to be Maria’s partner. Hannes doesn’t need much convincing for what he sees as his chance of a lifetime , even though Maria reckons he’s selling his soul to the devil. Some fancy footwork is required, however, by the devious Carla to get rid of their current latenight host, the grotesquely trashy Mick Meyer (Dieter Pfaff), to clear the way for Hannes’ new “Late Show.”
Tele-C’s problems aren’t over, though. Conny has a heart attack, the ambitious Carla takes over, the first run-through is a disaster, and Hannes is set up by a muckraking reporter with a front-page scandal just before airtime. Last reel’s multiple twists are smartly scripted.
The top-flight thesps go at their roles with gusto, especially Schmidt as the harassed tube veteran and Tabatabai as the power-suited Carla, all kohl-ringed eyes and deep-purple lipstick. But what could have been a one-note satire develops a genuine emotional undertow during its third act, as the characters develop real depth beyond being media stereotypes. Chalk this up to the experience of director/co-writer Helmut Dietl, whose last pic, the wonderful ensembler “Rossini,” showed his ability not only to meld star performers into a smooth whole but also to engage an audience’s emotions, even with superficial characters.
For German viewers, there’s the immediate hook of watching Gottschalk slowly pupate from a longhaired aging-hippie type into his shock-haired TV persona, with Schmidt (a more buttoned-down TV personality) playing the villain. But even without that background knowledge, the two thesps’ onscreen chemistry is evident.
Smaller roles are equally well cast, especially Otto Schenk as the station’s soft-spoken, all-powerful backer who rarely leaves his Bavarian chalet. Tech credits are tiptop, with frequent use of Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business” perking up the tempo.