Dällebach Kari (1970)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

They come in droves, the customers of Karl Tellenbach’s barbershop, even though his hand shakes when his razor nears their necks.

They come in droves for his famous one-liners, improvised insults and verbal acrobatics performed in a unique nasal whine caused by his hare lip. But the jokes are closer to the bone than anyone cares to admit.

They come in droves, to hear another story from “dr Kari”, even though he insists on Dällebach. One woman alone he’ll allow the affectionate Bernese diminutive “Karu”. But he hasn’t seen her in thirty years.

Enough to drive a man to a cherry schnapps. And then a bottle of red. And one more for the road… Cajoled and cheered on by his customers and well-wishers, neighbours and hangers-on, who all come in droves to drive him to the grave.

Kurt Früh’s 1970 darkest of comedies compiles the anecdotes and bon mots of a real inhabitant of Bern in the early twentieth century, “Dällebach Kari”, and concentrates them into a series of escalating binges in the run-up to his suicide in 1931. Dällebach was a so-called “Town Original”, an eccentric character whose reputation acquired a mythic quality even before his legendary drowning in the Aare (and subsequent self-organised funeral arrangements).

It’s no spoiler to speak of Dällebach’s suicide, since we witness it in the first scene of the movie. By leading with the tragedy, the audience is demanded to forensically examine events leading up to it. They are rewarded with the intense specificity of a claustrophobic Bern milieu brimming with drunks, crooks and good samaritans. Dällebach’s arc through all this is positively Shakespearean: it reveals a touching emotional core which sometimes borders on the vast, unspeakable.

The universality of the emotions are manifested in probably the best performance by a Swiss actor I’ve ever seen (Walo Lüönd of Die Schweizermacher). Our soul is touched by this bullied disabled man, whose use of humour to ward off attack is so automatised that he self-identifies only as victim or clown; by this proud barber’s apprentice, who is defeated in love by class prejudice; by this romantic of no self-worth, for whom the slightest attention from a woman can brighten his day, but also lead him to fatal distraction.

And, of course, by this addict. Two policemen fish Dällebach out of the river at the climax of one of his benders. “Two Italians threw me in!” he cries. “Who did it?” they demand. “Mr Chianti and Mr Barbera!” replies Dällebach, and stumbles back into town. The relentlessness of this type of bingeing and its embeddedness in the community reminded me strongly of British pubs, where locals depend on each other as a surrogate family, and the price they pay is a never-ending intake of booze. The inhabitants of the bars in Dällebach’s neighbourhood don’t primarily need alcohol, they crave friendship, affection, love; but all too often the one precludes the other, until addiction becomes endemic.

The Chianti/Barbera line is one of the real-life Dällebach’s most famous gags, but it’s worth remembering the lines which follow it in Kurt Früh’s screenplay. One policeman says that they can’t just let him go, since he’s blind drunk; the other regrets they’d have to let him go – “what’s the point of bothering him?”

We don’t judge the policemen for not intervening. As in the fifties Zurich films (e.g. Café Odeon, Bäckerei Zurrer), Kurt Früh generally displays a generosity of spirit towards the members of the city milieu he depicts, so the tragic downfall of an outsider like Dällebach is perhaps best seen as an unavoidable side effect of a complex social system, rather than an implicit condemnation of it, as in Dürrenmatt. But a certain cynicism has definitely crept in; more so than those earlier movies, the drinking halls and small-time cabaret bars are deromanticized in Dällebach Kari and the petit bourgeois are subjected to crueller jokes.

I really meant that reference to Shakespeare, by the way. Not only are we granted insight into human nature in everyday life; but the episodes of Dällebach’s tragedy are also full of colourful entertainment for a wide audience, the darkness constantly flickering with wit and physical comedy. We can always latch on to a cast of recognizable types which draw us into the booze-soaked evenings just as they keep pulling in Dällebach.

Our hero combines elements of both Ariel and Caliban in The Tempest; the monster and the mischief-maker as one, imprisoned in a Bernese island, condemned partly by his own enchantments. He won’t get the girl, but win freedom, of a sort, by submitting himself to the storm.

Swissness Difficulty Level: Chasseral – Beginners.
: Old-fashioned Bernese dialect, extra tough on non-natives because of Dällebach’s speech impediment – German subs recommended.
Availability: Free on PlaySuisse

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