The debatable laugh

Filmmaker Ferne Pearlstein takes a look at Holocaust humor on the silver screen.

Mel Brooks, director of the 1967 movie The Producers, performs a Heil Hitler salute (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mel Brooks, director of the 1967 movie The Producers, performs a Heil Hitler salute
(photo credit: Courtesy)
ARE JOKES about the Holocaust completely off-limits, or can humor actually have a positive role to play?
That is the question 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 television skits and film clips featuring jokes 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 time 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 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’s 1968 satirical film The Producers, in which two schnooks – scheming to make money by producing a play meant 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 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 television appearances. But though he indicates he would not enter the same territory into which Silverman and Rivers have ventured, Brooks remains an admirer of their work.
He notes that when he made The Producers in 1967, he was considered by many to be courageous and daring, yet the film seems quite tame today. As some of the other commentators note, as we move further and further away from tragic events such as 9/11 and the onset of AIDS, those subjects have increasingly become part of many comedians’ portfolios.
Explaining the origins of the movie, Pearlstein tells The Jerusalem Report that she did not set out to make a “Holocaust film.” She recalls how her curiosity was piqued when a friend showed her an academic paper he had written about how Jews used jokes in the war-time ghettos to help them get through the 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 says.
Her quest led her to Firestone, a feisty outspoken woman then in her late 80s 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 and confronting one of the German doctors who operated on her sister at Auschwitz.
“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 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 documentary.
“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.
Some of the most interesting responses to the film, she points out, have come from non-Jewish viewers.
“There was a man in his late 60s 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, 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.”
Many fans of the famous comedians, Pearlstein says, have told her the analysis the comedians provide of their own work in the film gave them 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 Brooks, who even at the age of 90 continues to have a spellbinding presence.
An award-winning cinematographer who did the camera work herself in richly-textured 16 mm. film, Pearlstein manages to create a handsome visual tableau for every camera set-up. She also did the editing, and in so doing, gleaned the documentation 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 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, author of Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany.
It’s clear both from 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 that artists may deal with the subject in less reverential ways than many ever thought would 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 humor can play in keeping us going.