Vaterfreuden: Film Review

Warner Bros. Germany
If only the director had the balls to think outside the box.

The latest box-office hit starring German actor-director Matthias Schweighoefer is set in motion when a hungry pet ferret accidentally turns Schweighoefer's character into a eunuch.

LUXEMBOURG -- After a fortuitous visit to a sperm bank, a handsome bachelor has his nuts bitten off by his brother’s pet ferret in Vaterfreuden, the latest mainstream comedy hit from the extremely popular German actor-director Matthias Schweighoefer (What a Man, Schlussmacher). 

Though the setup sounds like a Bier-und-Bratwurst version of an Adam Sandler vehicle, Vaterfreuden, which roughly translates as "the joys of fatherhood," is actually based on a popular novel from local screenwriter-turned-author Murmel Clausen, who helped adapt his own work alongside the director and another three credited screenwriters. Schweighoefer of course plays the unlucky protagonist, a happy-go-lucky single guy in his early thirties who has never shown any interest in having kids but who, after the unfortunate accident has left him bereft of his baby-making capacities, suddenly wants to put his hands on his own sperm-bank donation.

Another showcase for both Schweighoefer’s charms as an Everyman-type actor and his workmanlike directorial talent, Vaterfreuden was such a sure-fire German hit that Warner Bros. Germany decided to open the film during the recent Berlin Film Festival, which tends to hog all the media attention, without actually presenting it there. The bet clearly paid off as the film has made a tidy $22.5 million to date and should soon surpass the $24 million total of his previous directorial outing, Schlussmacher.

Charming, toned blonds with killer smiles who star as well as direct their own romantic comedy vehicles seem to almost be a guarantee for box-office success in Germany. Inglourious Basterds star Til Schweiger created the original template with films such as his two Rabbit Without Ears movies (combined German box-office: $115 million), though the films themselves are far from original, as they stick closely to U.S. formulas and conventions for romantic comedies, including an amount of soft-pop-accompanied montage sequences that rivals the films’ box-office takings in dollars. Not coincidentally, the 33-year-old Schweighoefer co-starred in both Rabbit films before embarking on a successful career as his own star and director of similar material.

Schweighoefer, who grew up in former East Germany, here plays Felix, a handsome and non-committal guy who has a nice loft in Munich and who occasionally fools around with an improbably married girl who looks like a Victoria's Secret model and who pushes Felix to try things such as a female variation on "rodeo sex."

When Felix tells his somewhat dimwitted slacker brother, Henne (Friedrich Muecke, Schweighofer’s co-star in Friendship!), that he needs some dough, the latter suggests making a donation at a local semen bank. This turns out to be a godsend as not much later, Felix finds himself tied to the bed for some hanky panky, his lace-clad partner receives a call from her husband and, simultaneously, Henne’s hungry pet ferret can’t resist the siren call of Felix’s honey-doused nether regions.

The testicular tragedy should be the comical highlight of the film’s early going but never quite delivers on its promise, as the accident itself is kept so conspicuously off-screen that it is unintentionally comical, while the five screenwriters struggle to come up with dialog that would allow to turn this urban-legend type moment into a defining turning point for Felix, who for the rest of the film will chase his one sperm donation that could give him a future child.

The lothario-turned-eunuch finds out, via Henne, that his donation has already gone to Maren (Isabell Polak, Schweighofer's co-star in Woman in Love), a famous anchor on a sports channel, and much time is devoted to Felix trying to insinuate himself into Maren’s life. She’s of course awfully nice but also awfully married to Ralph (Tom Beck), who conveniently transforms from an ideal husband -- cue Felix’s jealousy -- to total bastard, so the future father can help rescue the mother of his child from her impending nuptials.

Of course, the narrative is really just a clothesline on which to peg individual scenes of laughter or romance. Though there’s a woefully maudlin flashback that explains why Felix hates car and, more generally, his inner turmoil over the questions linked to potential fatherhood is left extremely underdeveloped, Felix is nonetheless a sympathetic character, with Schweighofer selling the romance like a pro. He also manages to wring some laughs from a few scenes of physical comedy, including at a swimming pool where he takes his cute little niece (Lina Huesker), who becomes a pawn in his scheme to woo Maren (the combination of a cute kid and a clueless -- when it comes to kids -- hot single man is also a recurring feature in Schweiger's films).

But the jokes in the dialog are extremely hit-and-miss, and the film’s contrast between Maren’s wholesome future mother (who is so asexual she got pregnant via insemination) and the other women, who are either long-legged sex kittens or physically unattractive so they can be the butt of jokes, feels like it belongs in the early decades of the previous century.

Detours to a stunt racing stadium event and, later, the scenic Alps notwithstanding, the film’s visual language stays very televisual in its use of plentiful close-ups. Songs are programmed to sell soundtrack albums as much as accompany the perfunctory montage sequences.

Opens: Feb. 6 (in Germany)

Production companies: Panteleon Films, Wiedemann & Berg Film, Warner Bros. Film Productions Germany, Seven Pictures Film
Cast: Matthias Schweighoefer, Isabell Polak, Friedrich Muecke, Tom Beck, Natalia Belitski, Alexander Khuon, Moritz Grove, Louisa Baehr, Katharina Schuettler, Detlev Buck, Michael Gwisdek, Margarita Broich
Director: Matthias Schweighoefer
Screenwriters: Matthias Schweighoefer, Sebastian Wehlings, Christian Lyra, Andrea Willson, Murmel Clausen, screenplay based on the novel Frettsackby Murmel Clausen
Producers: Marco Beckmann, Quirin Berg, Dan Maag, Matthias Schweighoefer, Max Wiedemann
Production designer: Christian Eisele
Music: Martin Todsharow
Editor: Stefan Essi
Sales: Pantaleon Films
No rating, 110 minutes.