Beginning with the tongue-in-cheek claim that jokes were the only good thing to come out of Communism, Hammer & Tickle recounts a humorous history of the Soviet Union and its satellite states through the jokes that flourished under the oppressive regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe. Jokes, the film contends, were a language of truth under Communism; a language that allowed people to navigate the disconnect between propaganda and reality and provided a means of resisting the system despite the absence of free speech. Using animated sequences, manipulated archival footage, and sketches to resurrect the jokes, the film offers an ironic take on the history of Communism while simultaneously investigating the social and political impact of jokes under Soviet rule. Interviews with Solidarity leader and former Polish president Lech Walesa, hard-line Polish leader General Jaroszelski, German actor Peter Sodann, German satirist and author Ernst Roehl, East German newspaper editor and Politburo member Guenter Schabowski, and academics Christie Davies and Roy Medvedev address the role that jokes played in challenging and weakening the Communist system from the inside even as joke-tellers faced censure or time in the Gulag for voicing their humor. Light and irreverent in its tone, Hammer & Tickle is really about the ultimate seriousness of joking and the use of the power of laughter to overcome hardship.
Ben Lewis is an award-winning director with a reputation for making funny films about serious subjects with large-scale international coproductions. In documentaries as diverse as Nicolae Ceaucescu: The King of Communism, Baader Meinhof: In Love with Terror, Blowing Up Paradise: French Nuclear Testing, and his long-running series on contemporary art, Art Safari, Ben uses humor to make analytical, intelligent, and highly accessible documentaries for audiences all over the world. He speaks four European languages and works invariably with a team of producers, editors, and cameramen from all corners of Europe. He often combines devices used in quirky autobiographical journeys and objective historical documentaries to create multi-textured films. His work also embraces a large spectrum of recording media, from crisp Digi Beta to low resolution VHS. In 2001, Ben won the Grierson award for best historical documentary for The King of Communism.