“Nobody’s protected from being laughed at in the Jewish community,” says Dani Levy. Coming from an American filmmaker like Woody Allen, or even Mel Brooks, this comment would sound trite. But here in Berlin, Levy’s sentiments seem both iconoclastic and terrifically important. Levy is one of Germany’s most celebrated and successful filmmakers, as much a celebrity as the actors in his films.

Over breakfast at the Café Gottlob (“thank God” in German) in West Berlin’s formerly Jewish Schöneberg district, Levy explains that he’s exhausted. Go For Zucker: An Unorthodox Comedy—a huge hit in Germany—is about to open in the United States (it premieres in New York on January 20), and a new film, a comedy about Hitler with the working title Mein Führer, is about to go into production. Yesterday, he worked 11 hours straight on the new project’s script, then “to air out his head” walked around the snow-bedecked city for three hours, staying out well past midnight. But fatigue doesn’t seem to have affected the Swiss-born director’s knack for chatter or tendency to philosophize. “Jewish humor, or good humor in general, lives from the fact that nobody’s perfect, and that our whole existence is pretty ridiculous in itself,” Levy proposes with a smirk. “We are all walking disasters.”

still from 'Zucker'
Scene from Zucker

The first comedy about Jews from Germany since the 1930s, Zucker surprisingly swept six categories at the German Film Prize last year. Set in Berlin, the film tells the story of two estranged brothers: the secular and downtrodden Jaeckie Zucker (nee Jakob Zuckermann), a former East German sports reporter turned small-time pool hustler; and Samuel Zuckermann, Orthodox and priggish. Jaeckie and Samuel reunite at the bidding of their mother’s will, which stipulates an Orthodox funeral in the huge Weissensee Jewish cemetery, a strict week of shiva, and, most importantly, no inheritance for either brother if things don’t get friendly.

With its unblinking (and sometimes outrageous) look at contemporary German-Jewish life—a cashier at a kosher supermarket cheerfully insisting, “It’s never too late to become Jewish!”; Jaeckie’s family unsuccessfully pretending to obey the dietary laws—the film takes an irreverent look at a topic that’s weighed heavy on the German soul for six long decades. Despite mass societal guilt about the Holocaust and the endless succession of museums and memorials, most contemporary Germans are at best unfamiliar and at worst highly uncomfortable with Judaism, Jewishness, and Jews. Which is, perhaps, one reason Zucker fared so extraordinarily well here. But the film also brilliantly satirizes the still-healing rifts between East and West Germany. “When I wrote the screenplay I put together all kinds of elements without knowing whether this existed or not, whether there was a Jewish family that was divided,” says Levy. “I started doing research, and I realized that I was actually pretty close to what really happened.”

Not that Zucker should be taken as realism. Growing up “relatively wild” within the confines of Basel’s Jewish community (his Polish-Jewish mother fled Berlin in 1939), Levy received a crash course in irony. “You make fun of yourself and others,” he says. “This person is more Orthodox than you, but he cheats on this and this. I grew up in that kind of culture.”

Levy worried about finding a cast who would share his sensibility. “I was doubtful I would find actors in Germany who would understand human beings with this ironic eye,” he explains. His fears were soon allayed. Henry Hübchen, an East German theater star who plays Jaeckie to dissolute perfection, and Udo Samel, a West German television star and theater actor, as the more uptight Samuel not only immediately understood Levy’s vision, but added an unanticipated dimension to the film. “When I had them on set as brothers, I realized that 15 years after unification, it was West meets East,” says Levy, explaining that “in East Germany acting was a job like any other. Samel came out of a very sophisticated acting approach.”

For all its success, Zucker barely made it to the screen. “The movie was an unloved child,” laments Levy. “No one wanted to take care of it at the beginning.” Initially intended for television, the film was turned down by every station in Germany before finding backers. Test screenings convinced Levy and his producers that Zucker was more suited to the big screen. “It had a small release in Germany. It was a sleeper, running for weeks with mostly word-of-mouth. And then we cleaned the evening [at the German Film Prize]. Which gave the movie another push.”

Before moving to Berlin in 1980, Levy, 48, worked his way through the fringes of Switzerland’s arts circles: He was a circus acrobat and clown, then played in a rock band, before “accidentally” landing an acting job at the Basel State Theater. In 1985, his first film Du Mich Auch (Same to You) became a surprise hit on the European festival circuit, jump-starting what has become a remarkably successful career, defined by edgy features like the sexual thriller Stille Nacht (1995), starring his former longtime girlfriend and collaborator Maria Schrader. In 1994, he founded a production and distribution company, X-Filme Creative Pool, with Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), Wolfgang Becker (Goodbye Lenin), and producer Stefan Arndt. With Zucker, he’s given up rehearsing to allow actors to more fully interpret the story. “I’d be the wrong person to shoot Mission Impossible 3,” he says.

As a director, Levy views his work, reluctantly, as slightly subversive. “It’s not a self-decided thing that I have to be the angry Jew who confuses the country, but there seems to be an energy in my work here that creates this,” he says, taking a drag off a borrowed cigarette. “I accept it. It’s a mixture between love and fear. I have to do it. It’s like a devil in me. I’m a Scorpio. You know what I mean?”

Levy is optimistic about the film’s American release. “You watch one black-and-white movie after another in which you have a Jewish victim and a German perpetrator. People stop being interested in it and they need a new approach,” he says, his mood slightly dampening. “Europeans did a lot of research. The main energy was to understand exactly what happened. But we didn’t think too much about why it happened. That’s something nobody really understands. Not that you can resolve this, but I think that comedy can be more enlightening.”