Männer… (1985) opens with advertising executive Julius Armbrust (Heiner Lauterbach) discovering that his wife Paula (Ulrike Kriener) has been having an affair with a graphic artist named Stefan (Uwe Ochsenknecht) on their wedding anniversary. Julius himself is no stranger to adultery but he nevertheless begins to crack-up. In the midst of his self-destructive behavior Julius decides to spend his holiday by assuming a false identity and renting a room in Stefan’s house. At first Julius wants only to understand why Paula prefers Stefan, but the two men form a reluctant friendship and soon Stefan begins to transform into Julius’ double.
Writer and director Doris Dörrie’s Männer… is a dark screwball comedy that takes deadly aim at the social conventions and tough guy posturing of male friendships. In the context of the screwball comedy formula the roles of Julius and Stefan would typically be overtly romantic; akin to the relationship between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940). By equating a platonic masculine friendship with a tumultuous romantic relationship Dörrie subverts the buddy comedy sub-genre and exposes those emotional truths that are applicable to any and all human relationships.
Männer… is a balancing act between subversive gestures that are often homoerotic and sentimental narrative beats derived from the great buddy comedies. For example, the scene where Julius plays housewife to Stefan is almost immediately followed by a visual quotation of the fountain scene in Mel Brook’s The Producers (1967). A latent homophobia seems to motivate this balancing act that would not be at all necessary to ensure the film’s release today. But Männer… is a film of the eighties and is subject to the tastes and political conventions of that moment, despite when the filmmakers may have felt about these issues.
In many ways Männer… can be seen as a more commercial reiteration of Elaine May’s investigations into masculine frailties and a progenitor of the “bromance” buddy movies that Judd Apatow popularized in the mid-2000s. Unlike Elaine May or Judd Apatow, Dörrie’s visual style is far more formalized. Her penchant for tilted angels, frames within frames, and a bright color palette signals a certain aesthetic kinship with her American contemporaries Jonathan Demma and Michael Mann. Although it must be said that Dörrie brings a certain Germanic brand of nihilism to the comedy that has yet to be replicated stateside.
Doris Dörrie’s approach to her material as a director is not overtly feminist. Certain progressive notions that grew out of feminism are apparent in the plot but she never makes a clear political statement. Instead, Dörrie illustrates her beliefs regarding gender, gender roles, societal constructs, and marriage through the comical misadventures of Julius and Stefan. This renders Männer… as subtle as it is effective.