Court says black humour is nothing new

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It gained an Oscar. It was witty. It was politically correct. What more could one ask?

But the success of the German short film Black Rider soon turned sour. The German press suggested that the idea of Pepe Danquart's film had already been used elsewhere. It was, said the critics, a mere rip-off. Now, the courts have finally had their say.

The story of Black Rider - the German title, Schwarzfahrer, is a pun, signifying both skin colour and a passenger who has no valid ticket - is simple enough. Black man gets into tram, and sits next to lady in hat. Lady in hat starts muttering about too many foreigners, how they all behave like animals, why don't they go home? Quiet black man doesn't react. Fellow-passengers pretend not to hear.

Inspector gets in. Mild passenger takes sweet revenge: seizes ticket from bigot's hand and eats it. Woman in hat tells the inspector that the black man has gobbled her ticket. Black man shows inspector his season ticket, with a polite and weary smile. Ticket inspector draws the line at the woman's ludicrously implausible explanation, and escorts her off the tram. Passengers remain silent. End of film, more or less.

Elegantly filmed in black and white, Black Rider was funny, biting and to the point. But that was where the problems started. Der Spiegel wrote of a "thievery affair". Bunte magazine talked of "plagiarism".

Whereupon m'learned Freunde got involved. A court has now ruled against Bunte, saying that the film merely repeated what was already a Wandersage - a traveller's tale or urban legend.

The judges seemed ready to confirm what the magpie author of Hamlet and King Lear had long since made clear: that there is no such thing as a truly original storyline; it's the packaging that counts. As a result, Bunte must knuckle under.

But the editor, Franz Josef Wagner, is not happy. He said yesterday: "I have to accept the court judgment. But it didn't convince me. What in the hell is a `traveller's tale', anyway? My view remains the same."