This isn’t a show that’ll change your life or perspective in any kind of profound way, but it’s probably one that’ll bring a smile to your face – and maybe a tear to your eye.
Germans have a reputation for being a bit humorless – “Well, you killed all the funny people,” as the late Robin Williams once said – which doesn’t bode well for the new dramedy The Last Word, now streaming on Netflix, which sees a woman, Karla (Anke Engelke), trying to get over the sudden death of her husband, Stephan (Johannes Zeiler), by becoming a eulogist.
That isn’t an inherently funny premise written down, but there’s humor in there, for sure, the most obvious point of comparison being Six Feet Under. Karla and Stephan had a teenage son, Tonio (Juri Winkler), and a grown-up daughter, Judith (Nina Gummich), back in Berlin for the first time in ages, which gives the show a familial unit to examine, while the idea of her late husband having some personal secrets and a funeral director (Thorsten Merten) trying to save the family business both conspire to lead Karla towards eulogizing as a way to make a living. The Last Word proves surprisingly apt at balancing tone, and it’s as wrenching as it is amusing, often to strong effect.
Death, and coping with it, is nothing new for film and TV, and the show is always fighting against that, looking for new ways to re-examine the grieving process when it seems as though all possible angles have already been done. There’s some novelty in the premise, as there was in something like Ricky Gervais’s After Life, which reimagined traumatic loss as a kind of superpower; being freed from the constraints of basic respectability by having lost the only thing you care about maintaining it for. The Last Word has a bit of that, and its gimmick of dealing with funerals that are often non-traditional reminded me, weirdly, of Netflix’s excellent M?ori docuseries The Casketeers.
The way Karla engages with death naturally prompts her to consider how she engages with life, which is only expected, and Engelke does a good job of rechannelling the energy we see her put into her own family into that of others who have experienced similar trauma. She’s capable, as a performer, of keeping up with the show’s fluctuating tone, and she’s surrounded by game supporting talent. This isn’t a show that’ll change your life or perspective in any kind of profound way, but it’s probably one that’ll bring a smile to your face – and maybe a tear to your eye.