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JOKER won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival – the first important award given to a DC or Marvel film – and was showered with euphoric reviews. After the festival the inevitable backlash came, which is common with surprise successes: there have been scathing reviews about Todd Phillip‘s JOKER for weeks now. Some can be explained by the usual disappointment after the hype, others are because of the discourse which such public opinions immanently produce. But there are also interesting objections, like Richard Brody‘s review in the New Yorker, in which Brody links the film to its filmic and real influences, especially the treatment of racially charged scenes that have a “rare, numbing emptiness.“

JOKER is an origin story about how insecure, mentally ill Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) became the Joker. The film has nothing to do with the DC Film Universe, it is a standalone story. That‘s a pity, because the universe which this JOKER is set is far more interesting than the official DC one. Gotham/New York in the 70s. The waste collectors are striking, huge rats are making the streets and apartments unsafe. Arthur Fleck works at a clown agency where he holds up advertising signs. He dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian, but others don‘t find his jokes funny (“I hope my death makes more cents than my life“). Arthur has a nervous tick that makes laugh loudly in stressful situations. He lives in a shabby apartment with his sick mother. When the city stops subsidizing, Arthur‘s therapy and medication, Arthur‘s hallucinations and delusions of grandeur spiral out of control.

JOKER is a film about class relations from a perspective that‘s at the bottom in the hierarchy. It‘s a white perspective, and Brody surmises that the film plays into Republican hands because of it, which he isn‘t entirely wrong about. JOKER clearly shows classism, but its racial politics are ambivalent to say the least. The US military and killing spree survivors have given out warnings about the film because they are afraid of copycats, especially from the incel scene, whose members view themselves as permanent losers in the gender struggle. That is both absurd – as absurd as society is right now – yet not impossible. The clown‘s mask in JOKER is nowhere near as cool as the V FOR VENDETTA masks, which inspired the half leftist/half right-wing extremist “Anonymous“ network. Even if you see Arthur Fleck/Joker as a right-wing rebel, the character is hard to identify with. Arthur is too pathetic, too sad, and too sick to be a hero. His character mostly elicits pity.

Joaquin Phoenix plays him with a radical physical commitment. He looks starved, his walk as if the young, hectic Robert de Niro from Scorsese‘s MEAN STREETS had clown shoes nailed to his feet. JOKER is a triumph of the actor as a motion artist. JOKER comes alive in the grotesque dances, where he seems more threatening and crazy than Jack Nicholson‘s or Heath ledger‘s versions ever were. However, this Joker doesn‘t show his menace through evil, but through everyday insanity. JOKER is about the oppressed going mad. If they do go berserk, or already have, it is definitely not due to this terrific film.

Tom Dorow

Translation: Elinor Lewy


USA 2019, 118 min
Language: English
Genre: Drama, Crime Drama, Thriller
Director: Todd Phillips
Author: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
DOP: Lawrence Sher
Montage: Jeff Groth
Music: Hildur Guðnadóttir
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham
FSK: 16
Release: 10.10.2019




  • OV Original version
  • OmU Original with German subtitles
  • OmeU Original with English subtitles

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