CATEGORIES Documentary, Independent, Tribeca, Politics, Cinematical Indie, Movie News, Tribeca Film Festival, CinematicalAccording to its press materials and blurb in the Tribeca Guide, Hammer & Tickle -- The Communist Joke Book, is a "Monty Python-esque doc" that examines humor in European communist countries via "a wide range of jokes and jokesters sure to tickle those fond of political humor." Unfortunately, that blurb is totally misleading, and is going to disappoint a lot of festival-goers. The fact is, Hammer & Tickle isn't very funny. Most of the jokes are funny primarily on an intellectual, historical level, rather than laugh-out-loud hilarious, and sequences that feature either animated devils and communists or actors, telling jokes in period costume, fall flat more often and not. Despite those failings, however, the film remains an interesting, creative look at Soviet history, as well as that of the old Eastern Bloc. Though you'd never know if from the way the movie's makers are selling it, if you're the kind of history lover who gets a thrill out of seeing author-historian Simon Sebag Montefiore on screen, you'll be intrigued by Hammer & Tickle.
Narrated by director Ben Lewis, the film is loosely built around a trip to Europe's former communist nations, where Lewis interviews subjects ranging from comedians to politicians; from historians to citizens once arrest for telling jokes, about the role of jokes and humor under communism. The interviewees generally agree that telling jokes -- which, because the government controlled every aspect of life, were almost always about the government -- was a way of claiming a bit of freedom, in a system that allowed none. By telling a joke about Stalin (and thereby risking arrest, and time in the gulag) a citizen was, in a very small way, saying no to the man in power.
As the movie progresses, each decade is presented as having distinct characteristics, in terms of both humor and politics and, though the constant interference of cartoon joke sequences is incredibly distracting, the history on display is fascinating. It's suggested, for example, that it's no coincidence that the first communist country who citizens rose in successful opposition to their government was Poland, also the first country to allow anti-government and anti-establishment humor on television. There's something both haunting and utterly absorbing about watching Polish television footage from the late 1970s of a comedy troupe joking about the realities of everyday life, and seeing the live audience laughing publicly at the humor for the first time in decades. As one who lived through those times says in the film, for many people living under the thumb of the Soviet Union, "laughing [at these jokes] was like revolution."
By the time the 1980s rolled around, the most important leaders in the world were telling the jokes that once had been shared in secret, at great personal risk. The film presents the idea that Ronald Reagan's interest in and knowledge about anti-government jokes in the Soviet Union was instrumental in helping him understand life in the "Evil Empire," and persuaded him that Soviet citizens truly wanted change. Similarly, when Mikhail Gorbachev went on a British talk show and told an old joke about his own murder (or would-be murder -- the line was too long), it was an undeniable sign that change had come.
Historical touches like these give Hammer & Tickle its power and, by rights, should be used to sell it to potential audiences. Unfortunately, director Lewis' mistaken belief that his film is funny sends it off in unnecessary directions, and will perhaps distract audiences from the historical realities it explores. In actuality, the moments that emphasize the specifics of the communist-era jokes are the weakest in the film; it's the context of those jokes that's valuable, and that gives the film its surprising power.