LONDON — “Borat” has ice-cream-trucked through Europe, hoarding euros and pounds and maybe even performing a service.
As an inelegant barometer, it might just illuminate the zeitgeists of various nations, unlikely for a tactless Jewish comic in a body thong (or less).
Germany finds itself devouring ethnic satire three decades after queasiness wrought a ban on “The Producers.” Holland has proved ever unshockable. Denmark has approved, even if some resented antipiracy security at the critics’ screening. Russia, new at this (and ex-Soviet alongside the Borat-lampooned Kazakhstan), has banned the film.
And “Borat” star Sacha Baron Cohen’s actual homeland, the U.K., again has played global central nervous system, where an ambassador from an unknown 15-year-old country ends up writing two newspaper columns and one landmark aphorism.
Where the U.K. knows Baron Cohen from latenight TV going back to 1998, Germany saw an underground buzz surface. “Nobody is mistaking it for ‘Citizen Kane,’ but I’m very happy to say that most of my colleagues got it,” says German film reviewer Karsten Kastelan. “They got that it’s a very funny movie, and they got that it’s satire.”
That’s even given the Germans’ need for selective laughter as they finish molting from 20th century history. They would not laugh at, say, the Third World, or Kazakhstan, but Americans . . .
“A national sport, unfortunately,” Kastelan says.
By the time “Borat” ruled Holland’s screens, “he” already had visited Amsterdam’s red-light district for a thong pose with prostitutes in that exceptional country.
“I’m not saying everybody enjoys it, but it’s just not shocking to us,” Dutch critics’ association chair Remke de Lange says. “Even if the film had been about Holland, I don’t think there would have been any trouble.”
De Lange even peered through the satire to find a “lovely sense of Americana” in Americans’ kindly patience with a crass visitor.
Danes, with a theater tradition of “putting a hick at rich people’s tables,” know satire, and reviewer Kim Skotte says of “Borat”: “You’re never quite sure who the laugh is on: on you, on him, on Americans, Kazakhs. It’s an open-ended joke.”
The joke won no laughter at the screening — Danish critics don’t laugh during screenings, Skotte says — nor did the security win affection. It featured a guard monitoring critics with an infrared device, prompting a boycott from a major Danish newspaper and moving Skotte to pen a complaint to Fox on behalf of Copenhagen’s guild of film critics.
In another capital of satire (and self-satire), Britons laughed uproariously. Even Erlan Idrissov laughed now and then, a “Borat” feat: He’s the Kazakh ambassador, a cinema guest of the Times of London, which published a chart of his laughs (i.e., chicken on subway) and silences (“running of the Jews”).
On Oct. 4, he’d written defensively in the Guardian of Kazakhstan’s nonbackwater status. By Nov. 4 in the Times, he thanked Baron Cohen for the unprecedented “press inquiries” and “speaking invitations.”
That column appeared on the Kazakhstan news bulletin board outside the embassy in South Kensington, just below a Kazakh travel agency’s invitation for a “Kazakhstan-vs.-Boratistan” tour offering chic shopping plus the chance to “interact with real Kazakhs” and try “kumyss, the deliciously tasting Kazakhstan national drink made from fermented horse milk.”
Idrissov labeled Baron Cohen “a remarkable comic talent” but admonished he should meet his namesake, Yeshaya Cohen, the chief rabbi of Kazakhstan.
And Idrissov did write a line warranting immortality: “Having survived Stalin, we will certainly survive ‘Borat.’ “