Year: 2011
Director: Til Schweiger
Country: Germany
Screenplay: Béla Jarzyk, Til Schweiger
Cinematography: Christoph Wahl
Cast: Til Schweiger, Emma Tiger Schweiger, Jasmin Gerat, Samuel Finzi, Meret Becker
Runtime: 126 min
Trailer: on YouTube
Film’s official website: warnerbros.de (in German)

A writer – a womanising bachelor (Til Schweiger) whose vocabulary lacks the word ‘responsibility’ – comes home one day to find a child (Emma Tiger Schweiger) in front of his door with a note saying she is his daughter. That’s the story of Kokowääh in a nutshell – nothing too original perhaps, but with comic potential and even opportunity for heart. Given its success with German cinema goers (840,000 tickets sold in the opening weekend, with a 4.3 million total in sales, impressive when compared to Breaking Dawn’s 3.45 millions and Pirates of the Caribbean – Part 4’s 4.38) it would seem then that Kokowääh pulls it off. However, reactions from the critics were more divisive, noting in particular a narrative full of plot holes.

Dumped on the doorstep of a stranger

There are indeed problems from the start: the very premise that a mother dumps her child on the doorstep of someone who is, to little Magdalena, a total stranger and, to the mother, at most a distant friend (a childhood acquaintance with whom there seemingly has been no contact over the past eight years), is a little incredible, in particular because it may not be a temporary arrangement: Charlotte (Meret Becker), the mother, is off to the United States to attend a trial that may land her in prison for several years, while Tristan (Samuel Finzi), the man who called himself Magdalena’s father up to now, has abandoned the girl in his discovery that the child he had “pure…unconditional” love for is biologically not his, but the product of a one-night stand. One has to wonder why Magdalena does not stay with her mother’s friend that drops her off at Henri’s, or where grandparents and other family members are that would seem much more appropriate to lend a hand in such situation than someone previously unaware of the girl’s existence. It is a big leap of logic that one is asked to take here.

However, for the sake of getting our story, we might just buy into the set-up – if only the rest of the film made more sense. Unfortunately it does not: Katharina (Jasmin Gerat), a celebrated novelist and Henri’s ex-girlfriend from long ago, seeks out her former lover under the pretense of wanting to write a film script for her novel Freiflug (Free Flight) together but really hopes to win him back (suddenly, after all these years!). Short on cash and a big-time philanderer – the number of toothbrushes for ‘overnight visitors’ suggests that floods of women pass through his home -, Henri is not disinclined, but his working methods are unchanged. He is radical in his editing of the first twenty pages of Katharina’s draft (“let’s nix them”) and never on time for meetings (if remembering them at all). Additionally, there are also other women in his life (past and present), so Katharina is soon tormented both by frustration and jealousy, having clearly forgotten that love and work are best kept separate. Rather than the 30, 40-year old woman that she is, she behaves like a twenty-something pining over the end of her first serious relationship, wanting a man back that she already knows is a skirt-chaser as well as an unreliable working partner. It’s thus difficult to feel any sympathy for Katharina, because rather than getting angry at the man – as much as he is a jerk – she simply should have known better.

The ex who doesn’t know better

The other adults are no different: they make Henri out as the constantly broke, irresponsible and self-centred loser, all of which is true. But Henri never pretends otherwise, it is everyone else around him that does: Katharina, Charlotte and Tristan lead fake lives of perfection, with impressive careers and imperial houses (including toilets that flush at the sound of hands clapping), but beneath the surface grapple with serious issues and personal complexes, for which Henri is apparently responsible singlehandedly. He is, for example, to be blamed for the breakdown of Charlotte and Tristan’s marriage, as if the mother had no part to play in the one-night stand nor in the decision to lie about her child’s parentage for years – a child that Henri himself never knew about.

The only grown-up in the film is the little girl herself. She is unfazed by the whole situation (never mind that it is life-changing), and does not seem to miss her mother or father in any noticeable way, content as she is living with a stranger. Of course, there are a few hiccups in Henri and Magdalena’s cohabitation – initial battles of wills, lack of edibles in the fridge, no child-sized pyjamas – but these are soon resolved, with Henri taking to the girl in a matter of days despite his loudly declared dislike of children and Magdalena discovering that the guy is simply “cool”.

All this is part of the film’s happiness charade: Kokowääh comes with the happy end guaranteed. Not that I expected otherwise, but it would have been nice to see the film take a few risks along the way and not to succumb to clichés and easy resolutions quite so readily. Instead [spoiler alert], Charlotte and Tristan are blissfully reunited, tension between the two competing Dads is eliminated by Magdalena’s equal love for both, and, most unrealistically of all, Henri and Katharina’s problems instantly dissolve the moment they agree get married and have four children together [end spoiler].

The self-declared child-hater and the abandoned daughter, having fun despite it all 

The cinematography is like the film itself – more style than substance. Shots have a distinct and very pretty tonal range, colours being greyed out to evoke feelings of grittiness. Our characters, we are visually reminded, are having a tough time as marriages are breaking down, paternity statuses are reassigned, children are abandoned. But herein lies the problem: with realism lacking in the details (constant product placement and the penniless Henri’s spacious, extremely well-furnished place must also be mentioned at this point), it is difficult to be moved by any of this. It feels as if grey is only superimposed on the images, that the hard times are fabricated rather than real.

And good things about the film? Emma (who plays Magdalena) is super cute, even if her acting is occasionally a little wooden. There is also lovely chemistry between her character and Henri’s, providing viewers with a handful of enjoyable, funny moments – the scrambled egg scene in particular. Do note however that the English subtitles tone down the humour of the German original at times.

Overall Verdict: With a basic plot that was never particularly original to start with, Kokowääh relies on clichés rather than taking a few risks to come into its own, resulting in sugarcoated mainstream fare that occasionally elicits some laughs.

Rating: 5.5/10

Bonus Bits:

  • The title, Kokowääh, is Magdalena’s pronunciation of the French dish coq au vin – something that is less central to the film than you would think. It’s a great title, but, again, seems to have been chosen because it’s stylish rather than actually significant.
  • Til Schweiger, who is a big-name actor in Germany, produced, wrote, directed and acted in the film… stretched himself a bit too far if you ask me!
  • Til Schweiger and Emma Tiger Schweiger are father and daughter in real life.
  • Apparently a sequel is in the making, to be released in 2013. I’m afraid I won’t be on board for it.
  • The DVD is available on amazon.de and features English subtitles (note: bonus features are not subtitled). You can also get it via third-party sellers on amazon.co.uk.

Image Gallery: