A Year in Shorts Day 127: "Schwarzfahrer"
Oh, the one joke short. How I’ve missed you. It’s been nearly a month since we’ve covered a short whose runtime is mostly dedicated to the setting up of a punchline. That film came to us from France. Today’s film, Pepe Danquart’s 1993 film Schwarzfahrer (or Black Rider, if you want to be English) comes to us from Germany. Because if anyone understands comedy, it’s the Germans!
Like another European one joke short we've covered, Schwarzfahrer also doubles as a message film about the evils of racism, which perhaps helps explain why it won the Oscar. I kid of course. Mostly. Regardless, Schwarzfahrer earns points in my book by ALSO being a movie set on a train (technically a tram, but I'm not picky), telling the story of a Black man (Paul Outlaw) putting up with a lot of hateful speech from an elderly white woman (Senta Moira). That is not, admittedly, the most promising set up for a comedy short. If anything it sounds like the setup for a middlebrow drama in which racism will be solved forever which goes on to somehow win Best Picture. But again, this is a German short, so their understanding of comedy is different from ours.
The most noteworthy thing about Schwarzfahrer is the fact that its title is a pun. Ok maybe that's really only noteworthy to me, but still. In German a "Schwarzfahrer" (or "black rider") is slang for a fare dodger. So given the premise and events of the short, the title really has two meanings. In fact, I'd argue that that double meaning is really the whole joke of the short- the title is the setup for the ultimate punchline! So in order to really appreciate the short, you have to have the cultural context for it. Which isn't a knock against the short mind you! That's just how international cinema works sometimes, and you have to roll with it. But that's also part of the reason I decided to use the original German title for this post as opposed to the English one.
Anyway, as far as one joke shorts go, Schwarzfahrer is a pretty good one. It's in black and white, which you know I'm all in favor of. The direction overall is really nice, with slick cinematography and a pretty good score. And while it's arguably a little too long in its setup, its ultimate punchline is worth the journey. I don't know if that makes it Oscar worthy, but it's better than nothing.
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