From the jump, Wolfgang Murnberger’s “Love & Mazel Tov” seems like a worthy addition to the quirky romantic comedy canon. As an offbeat, slightly jaunty groove plays over the film’s opening moments, its four main characters take turns introducing themselves to the audience.
We meet Daniel (Maxim Mehmet), a gynecologist whose wife has left him for a woman; Tobias (Lasse Myhr), a Jewish doctor who has vowed to stay single until he’s 50; Laura (Lisa Wagner), a massage therapist who absolutely doesn’t offer “happy endings,” thank you very much; and Anne (Verena Altenberger), a woman whose most defining characteristic is her infatuation with Jewish culture – despite not being Jewish herself.
As is typical with many romantic comedies, a meet-cute quickly ensues. While puttering around the Jewish bookstore she owns, Anne trips over a collection of Ephraim Kishon satires, breaking her arm in the process and ending up at the hospital with Tobias as her doctor. But, this isn’t the meet-cute that matters. Tobias, more interested in Anne’s friend Laura, decides to introduce Anne to his friend Daniel, and thus, the pieces for this comedy of errors fall into place.
Anne initially has zero interest in the shy, divorced Daniel, until she comes to believe that he is Jewish – which of course, he isn’t, but what’s the harm in letting her think he is? Cue the misunderstandings and slapstick hilarity – but what about the romance?
Through the relationship between Anne and Daniel, “Love & Mazel Tov” aims to tackle issues more serious than a case of mistaken identity, such as the harms of exoticising another culture and German guilt over the atrocities the Nazis committed against Jewish people during World War II. Quite frequently, the film tackles these issues with clever insight and sardonic humor, with Anne often coming off as the butt of the joke. But in using Anne as a vessel for German guilt, the film doesn’t give her any other real character traits, making it difficult to root for her and Daniel to walk off into the sunset – or to really understand why they like each other in the first place.
For its faults, “Love & Mazel Tov” sits quite comfortably in the comedy aspects of its genre, and Anne’s obsession lends itself to a few good laughs. There’s a moment early on in the film where Tobias makes an off-color joke about the two types of people in the world – there are anti-semites and philosemites, he says, but one group is lying. Anne sneers at the joke, insisting that actually, Jewish humor is much more clever than the joke that Tobias – the only Jewish person in the group – has made. It’s one of many smart moments that shrewdly points out how oblivious Anne is, preferring the idealized version of an identity that she’s built up in her head to the real thing.
Unfortunately, the jokes at Anne’s expense come at a price, and the film has a lack of regard for that first word in the “romantic comedy” equation. When we first meet Anne, all we know about her is that she has this enthusiasm for Jewish culture. As the film goes on, we begin to understand where this obsession comes from – a vast swath of guilt over the wealth her family gained at the expense of Jewish people around the time of World War II – wealth that Anne still benefits from. While this revelation provides more context for Anne’s passion, it’s still her only characteristic. The books she likes, the films she likes, what she does with her free time, all stem from this crushing guilt, and are all things she’s decided to like in order to compensate for the past.
This all makes for a good parable, but not for a good romance. The film wants us to root for a relationship based on a lie and for a couple who really don’t have much in common that we know about. We know the ultimately false reasons Anne likes Daniel, but why does Daniel like Anne? In every interaction with Anne, Daniel spends his time lying about his family history, curating his appetite to please her, and in extreme cases, discreetly hiding his body from her so she won’t realize that he’s uncircumcised. Funny, sure – but not necessarily fodder for a great relationship.
Anne comes off vapidly uninterested in anything about Daniel that doesn’t have to do with his fictitious Jewishness, and she never grows from that point. Even when Anne finds out about Daniel’s lie, a moment where she could have focused on her own actions and failings, the scene and its aftermath is fully overshadowed by the enormity of Daniel’s lie. Anne’s outrage is more than justified, and while the film allows her a bit of time to ruminate on how she goes about choosing romantic partners, it’s more interested in whether she should accept Daniel’s apology or not.
In the end, Anne still knows nothing about Daniel, and Daniel knows nothing about Anne. All the jokes, all the sharp barbs and clever insights, don’t leave room for an actual connection to develop, rendering any attempt at romance or reconciliation hollow.