The Debatable Laugh
Are jokes about the Holocaust completely off-limits or can humor actually have a positive role to play?
That is the question that American filmmaker Ferne Pearlstein sets out to examine in The Last Laugh, a new documentary making its Israeli premiere at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July.
In the film, Pearlstein weaves numerous tv skits and film clips, featuring jokes made by famous American entertainers, together with observations about the humor made by either the comedians themselves or their peers, almost all of whom are Jewish. A third thread is provided by Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone who reminisces about how maintaining her sense of humor sustained her during her days at Auschwitz and in her life afterwards. Firestone also offers her own candid appraisal of some of the contemporary jokes.
One striking finding is the sheer magnitude of the comic references that Pearlstein has been able to gather together – dozens of examples in the 85 minute long film provided by a star-studded panel of comedians and comedy writers that includes Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Rob Reiner, Carl Reiner, Harry Shearer, Joan Rivers, Larry Charles, David Steinberg and Lisa Lampanelli.
Their gags range from Sarah Silverman’s “The Holocaust would never have happened if black people lived in Germany in the 1930s and 40s … well, it wouldn’t have happened to Jews,” to scenes from Mel Brooks’ 1968 satirical film The Producers in which two schnooks, scheming to make money if a play they produce turns out to be a flop, concoct a musical called ‘Springtime for Hitler’.
Brooks and Silverman seemingly represent two different schools of thought. Silverman argues that taboos are always a bad thing. She points out, by way of an attention grabbing example, that the taboo of discussing sex at Catholic schools “has led many girls into slutish behavior” and that comedy has a role to play in “shedding light unto darkness.” Brooks, on the other hand, makes it clear that there are lines he would not cross. It is one thing to make fun of Hitler and Nazis, he suggests, another to make references to gas chambers, as Joan Rivers did in one of her tv appearances.
But even though Brooks indicates that he would not enter into the same territory that Silverman and Rivers have ventured into, he remains an admirer of their work. He notes that when he made The Producers in the sixties, he was considered to be courageous and daring by many, yet today, the film seems quite tame. As some of the other commentators note, as we move further and further away from such tragic events as 9/11 and the onset of AIDS, those subjects have increasingly become part of many comedians portfolios.
Filmmaker Ferne Pearlstein, explaining the origins of the film, tells The Jerusalem Report that she did not set out to make a “holocaust film”. She recalls how her curiosity was perked when a friend showed her an academic paper he had written about how jokes were used in the war-time ghettos by Jews to help them get through difficult situations. “ I decided that the only way I could do a film on this subject would be if I used it as a prism to represent how anybody can use humor to get through hard times,” says Pearlstein.
When she began to work on the film about five years ago, she quickly realized that she would need more than just comedians and clips. “I wanted to also provide an observational story so I began to search for a (Holocaust) survivor who could serve as a guide in the telling of the story,” she notes. Her quest led her to Renee Firestone, a feisty outspoken woman in her late eighties who frequently speaks to school groups about the Holocaust. Her recollections about her encounter with the notorious Dr. Mengele and other concentration camp incidents are leavened with a wistful sense of humor. At the same time, one of the most poignant moments in the film is when she describes tracking down one of the German doctors who operated on her sister at Auschwitz and confronting him.
“It also helped that Renee Firestone’s daughter Klara was willing to be in the film,” adds Pearlstein, noting that she discovered that the children of survivors often have a dark sense of humor. “They often make jokes among themselves that they feel that nobody else can get away with.”
Pearlstein, who grew up in a mainly Jewish suburb of Philadelphia and who descends from a family of East European Jews who came to America at the turn of the last century, had hardly met any Holocaust survivors before making the film. “We filmed Renee, who today is 92, and Klara on-and-off during the four years it took to make the film and now we are like family,” says Pearlstein.
She points out that some of the most interesting responses to the film have come from non-Jewish viewers. “There was a man in his late sixties who stood up after the screening at the Tribeca (Film Festival in New York) and became very emotional. He said that he didn’t see it as a Holocaust movie but rather that it spoke to him as reminding him about his own personal holocaust. By that he meant the many friends he had lost to AIDS, “ recalls Pearlstein, adding that “he took my breath away. It wasn’t something I expected.”
Pearlstein also notes that many fans of the famous comedians have told her that the analysis that the comedians provide of their own work in the film, gave the fans a new insight into the serious side of the comedians’ personalities.
The Last Laugh has a lot going for it. Many of the interviewees are riveting in what they have to say, especially Mel Brooks, who even at the age of 90 continues to have a spellbinding presence. Pearlstein, an award-winning cinematographer who did the camera work herself in richly-textured 16 mm film, manages to create a handsome visual tableau for every camera set-up. She also did the editing and in doing so gleaned the documentation that she felt best suited the tv or film medium.
But the strength of the film in that respect is also its weakness. There are very few commentators in the film who are not drawn from the entertainment world. It is ultimately a very homogeneous group of well-spoken Hollywood entertainers who do most of the talking.
Among the outliers in the film are Israeli satirical writer Etgar Keret and American writer Shalom Auslander, author of Hope: A Tragedy, a satire in which Anne Frank is depicted as a bitter old woman. Their brief comments may be less flamboyant than those of their Hollywood counterparts but their insights significantly broaden the discussion. Pearlstein herself mentions that there were many other writers that she filmed but whose interviews ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor “as they did not fit the structure of the film.” Among them: British novelist Martin Amis, whose novel Zone of Interest, set in Auschwitz is replete with comic and farcical elements; American cartoonist Art Spiegelman, whose graphic novel Maus deals with his father’s Holocaust experiences; and German writer and filmmaker Rudolph Herzog, the author of Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany.
It’s clear from both what is left in and what is left out of The Last Laugh, that enough time seems to have passed since the tragic events of the Holocaust for artists to deal with the subject in less reverential ways than many thought would ever be possible, without trivializing the topic. In so doing, they may be able to keep people aware of both the importance of the subject itself and the role that humor can play in keeping us going.
The Jerusalem Film Festival takes place in Jerusalem July 7-17.