Director: Wim Wenders; Screenplay: Kilgore Trout; Cinematography: Robby Müller; Cast: Jerry Lewis, Madeline Kahn, Bruno Ganz, Peter Falk, Willem Dafoe
Death of a Clown is an odd duck of a film; the sort of odd duck that one only tends to find in moldering books devoted to the extinct—all hand-drawn, pre-Audobon baroquery in faded violet lac and cuttlefish brown blending together on the tea-colored page. A duck so odd it seems as though it could have never walked the earth (much less swum or flown it) but there it is, Latinate binomial (or in this case, its LCC number) burnished proud, and chest puffed. It was “released” in 1979.
Even for those who know the story of The Day the Clown Cried, it is a shock to see Jerry Lewis dressed as Hitler. For those who don’t—The Day The Clown Cried was Lewis’s good-faith stab at a Holocaust dramedy, which he directed and starred in as the titular circus performer, who ends up in a concentration camp where he attempts to bring cheer to his fellow inmates. Slated for release in 1972, the controversial film never made it to theaters, though Harry Shearer claims to have seen it.
Death of A Clown, though seen by few, did enjoy a limited theatrical run in Europe and is a sort of re-animated version of The Day The Clown Cried, but with Lewis as a very different sort of clown. There is the sort of hamming and high-stepping and expectorating one might expect. There is the borschty, boarding-house Yinglish Lewis likes to employ instead of proper Hochdeutsch (when he isn’t grunting like Fillipo Marinetti that is). There are the endless who’s on first? heilings and re-heilings between Führer Lewis and his subordinates every time the former enters, or exits a room, (including die Toilette). And there is a tearful, torn-up pathos, too—the vaudevillian grasping at the existential—the kind that we all wanted to believe our star tried to summon in The Day The Clown Cried but apparently just couldn’t, at least not behind the camera (or so the stories go).
This time, it is Wim Wenders at the helm, directing from a script by Kurt Vonnegut (though he is credited, naturally, as “Kilgore Trout”) and these things it seems, made all the difference.
Contrary to what one might imagine, the light touch is not necessarily the right touch when it comes to sensitive material and it is easy to imagine how Lewis must have gotten it wrong the first time around—very silly, yes, but not sublimely so; quite stupid, sure, but clearly not insane; way too much schmaltz and yet somehow, not enough. Vonnegut’s script—written at the fecund and dissolute height of his strange and considerable powers at a time in which, approaching fifty, marriage to high school sweetheart Jane Cox dissolving, both he and his son Mark experienced major schizophrenic breaks—is, unlike Lewis’s ill-fated attempt to find a funny, middlebrow approach to the terror at the heart of the 20th century, just crazy enough to work.
The plot is a typically Troutian conceit enlarged, much like Slaughterhouse Five and Mother Night before it, to Wagnerian proportions by the nightmare of its real-life historical milieu, rendered in striking, nourish detail by cinematographer Robby Müller. In it, Hitler is a sophisticated, joke-telling robot, sent to earth by God (played with trademark weltschmerz by Peter Falk) as part of a routine plan to gauge the development of humanity’s sense of humor and moral scruples. Confident that Hitler will be laughed out of the Munich beer hall as soon as the absurd, pre-programmed words start caroling out from his realistic mechanical mouth, heaven is instead shocked by the unironic ovation and subsequent putsch leading to the eventual deposition of the Weimar government and the robot’s ascendency to the chancellorship of the so-called Third Reich.
Desperate to prevent further chaos but committed to a Leibnizian cosmological ordnung and thereby unwilling to intervene directly in human affairs, heaven sends a technician in the form of the archangel Selaphiel (an ethereal Bruno Ganz) to reprogram the beleaguered clown-bot. Despite the angel’s best efforts, however, including increasing the wiggliness of the robot’s signature funny-man mustache and adjusting the voice and body control knobs to their most barky and spastic settings, almost nobody seems to “get it” and Hitler’s power and influence continue to go unchecked and unchallenged. The fact that Hitler himself is so obviously Jewish, and whose increasingly flagrant anti-semitism therefore can’t possibly be taken seriously seems to escape everyone, even when Selaphiel adjusts the knob with the Star of David on it to the point where Lewis is kvetching in Hebrew about it being “like a sauna in here” between lines in his public speeches and mopping schwitz from his brow with a tallit. That the robot’s girlfriend, Eva (Madeline Kahn playing a surreal variant of Lili von Shtupp) is herself, so obviously not a goy doesn’t trouble the Volk either, not as one grinning Burgher (Ernest Borgnine in an uncredited cameo) remarks, with such “schöne blonde Haare!”
Unable to turn the tide by the usual means, Selaphiel resorts—after a long, one-sided conversation with God via a disembodied red telephone, hanging down from heaven by a long, curly, red cord somewhere over the Bavarian alps—to a final, desperate measure; fart noises. Every time Hitler gets up, sits down, bends his knees or swallows a bite of Schnitzengruben, Selaphiel is at his elbow with an invisible whoopee-cushion in hand, or a raspberry on his lips, ready to blow. Of course, by then it is too late. Though Lewis’s every reaction to the mysterious flatulence erupting constantly around him are flash-bombs of comedic genius to an instance, captured by Wenders in a series of bathetic, balletic sequences in various palatial old-world interiors, nobody is laughing.
Having failed in his mission, the bewildered Selaphiel spends the final moments of the film disconsolately roaming Hitler’s underground bunker, trying to learn about humanity by observing the play between the six young Goebbels children and their dogs. Though he sees much to redeem the race in these simple exchanges, it becomes clear to Selaphiel that humanity was simply not ready to be tested by a clown bot as good as Hitler and that God, like all parents, had probably had a more favorable impression of his offspring than they deserved. He is relieved then when, Soviet battalions battering the door, Jodl (played with houndlike ardor by a very young Willem Dafoe) presents Hitler with a loaded luger on a velvet pillow, which Lewis—tongue out, eyes crossed, head turned like a parrot and mustache working like a very hungry caterpillar—cocks, brings slowly to his command module and finally, dispassionately, releases.
With the exception of a cuckoo bird, coo-cooing by and by, the credits roll in silence. And really, what else is there to say?
Seth Blake is a writer from New Hampshire.