The Fisherman and His Wife (Der Fischer und seine Frau) (2005)
German with English subtitles
Doris Dörrie, director
One of Germany’s best known and much loved directors, Doris Dörrie has been making films since the 1970s. She is best known in the US for Men (Männer), a lovingly tongue-in-cheek send-up of 1980s yuppies in Germany, the so-called “Schiki-miki” class. In The Fisherman and His Wife (Der Fischer und seine Frau), Dörrie relates a contemporary romantic comedy through a charmingly made-up Japanese fairy tale. As ever with Dörrie, it is the heroine, in this case wife-mother-dynamic fashion designer Ida (Alexandra Maria Lara), who makes and breaks, and saves the day.
As the film opens in a mythic once upon a time, koi fish dart about in a large tank. Mingling among the vibrant red and white koi are two tatogoi, or “maybe fish,” one solid orange, the other solid yellow. Maybe, like fairytale frogs, they might one day become royalty. One is named Otto, the other Ida. The two are in fact humans suffering from a curse placed on them for forgetting their marriage oath, endlessly bickering, oblivious to why they ever got married. The true curse seems to be confusing deliberate commitment, convenience, and dull habit. According to the fairy tale, their only way to escape this fishy metamorphosis will be to find a human couple “still happy after three years of marriage.” As several people point out in the film, in Japanese “koi” means both “fish” and “love.”
Meanwhile, back in the present day, two young German entrepreneurs are also seeking their fortunes in Japan. Otto (Christian Ulmen) is the sensitive modern German man and a kind of “fish whisperer” who loves being a vet. Leo (Simon Verhoeven) is much more pragmatic and motivated by money. He is actually the one seeking a better fortune, using their “Flying Fish Doctors” service to run a side business, of locating and acquiring award-winning koi for wealthy patrons back in Germany.
Meanwhile (remember fairy tales often contain narratives framed within narratives, which actually twist and turn and flow into each other), Ida is a twenty-something free spirit who has also come to Japan, apparently in pursuit of inspiration or direction. In no time, she and Otto are “expecting,” and Ida has charmed Otto into becoming a sea horse, the only male known to give birth and raise children, while the wife is, in this case, out climbing her way to the top of the global fashion design industry.
Dörrie casts an observant, and always caring, camera eye on human weakness, exploring marriage through the two Ida-Otto couples and Leo’s power marriage to Yoko, a poor, lonely rich girl from Japan. Somehow, in German all tales of manners of married couples, including this one, hearken back to Goethe’s other best-selling novel, Elective Affinities.
Meanwhile, Dörrie sends up, more with humor than rebuke, the present decade’s global-wide obsession with its win-at-all-cost competitive spirit, the blurring of boundaries between profit-making and service providing, the West’s infatuation with Japanese design and the Japanese infatuation with Western design. Framing the story as a tale of the redemptive power of love may be a tried-and-true cliché, but here it succeeds charmingly well.