Eastern European humor has most often seemed too dry, too fatalistic and too independent of the standard punchline to work outside its native soil. And the irritating “Hammer & Tickle” — a survey of Soviet Bloc joke-telling and its influence on realpolitik — is burdened with the distancing facetiousness of director-narrator Ben Lewis. With financial TV tentacles all over Europe and Canada, widespread broadcast exposure is a certainty, but the docu’s chances in theaters, or the States at all, are less than those of a chicken crossing a six-lane highway.
Film posits that Communism was a much funnier system than the capitalism that has replaced it. “It’s just exploitation,” a former East German says of the free market, pining for the days of queues, cold water and Stasi surveillance. The incompetence, willful blindness and obsolete idealism of the Soviet oligarchy really was better joke fodder than cutthroat capitalism, and in many ways made life more livable. Humor, the movie posits, also helped bring down the Wall — rightly or wrongly, Ronald Reagan’s catalog of Soviet jokes is used as proof of that.
But Lewis and Co. are much better at straight history than an analysis of humor. There is very little of the latter, and it would have been useful, given all the talking heads assembled to make “Hammer & Tickle’s” case, to have been given an idea of what constituted a Communist joke, why it was funny and why capitalism isn’t. Admittedly, humor is almost impossible to break down into a formula, but such is the movie’s ostensible raison d’etre.
John “Moose” Pagan’s animated sequences, used to tell many of the jokes, are historically on target, a mix of “Rocky and Bullwinkle” and other cheaply manufactured TV cartoons of the ’60s (the type that make “South Park” look like Miyazaki). But they don’t add much. The same can be said for the voiceovers — dubbed into Irish brogue or Cockney –used to translate the Eastern European intellectuals and satirists who recall the various eras of forbidden joke-telling. And much of the humor was extremely topical and has aged about as well as Khrushchev.
There are some surprising moments. Who expected the talking heads to include Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, who ruled Poland during the Solidarity era, or Lech Walesa, who helped found the shipyard workers union, or Jerzy Urban, the Polish government mouthpiece, whose assignment was to discredit Solidarity through derisive humor? More about that, and less about animation and recitations, would have made “Hammer & Tickle” much more informative. Even amusing.