Humor and the Holocaust? Documentary explores the boundaries of comedy and tragedy

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Is it inappropriate to joke about the Holocaust? Is it acceptable to make fun of slavery? Can we find humor in topics like cancer and AIDS? Is it too soon to crack wise about 9/11? These are some of the questions raised by “The Last Laugh,” director Ferne Pearlstein’s thoughtful, provocative, and yes, funny documentary about Holocaust humor that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week.

Pearlstein, who co-wrote the film with her husband, Robert Edwards, makes her case by using an array of clips from Mel Brook’s audacious “The Producers,” to Sarah Silverman’s outrageous stand-up concert film, “Jesus is Magic,” to even those Holocaust “comedies” such as “The Day the Clown Cried” and “Life is Beautiful.” But she also balances the gallows humor with scenes featuring Renee Firestone, a Holocaust survivor who has an upbeat, optimistic view of life, but still doesn’t laugh at every joke.

Whether viewers will be amused or angered by “The Last Laugh” remains to be seen, but the writers and actors and comedians interviewed in the film, which include Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Carl and Rob Reiner, Judy Gold, Gilbert Gottfried, Etgar Keret, and Lisa Lampanelli, along with Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, weigh in on what’s offensive, and how, why, and where (as well as if) they find humor in the Holocaust.

Salon met with Pearlstein, Edwards and Firestone to see who gets “The Last Laugh.”

I really appreciate that you have made a film about a taboo topic. What made you forge ahead with this project, and what resistance did you encounter, if any?

Pearlstein: We encountered a lot of resistance in a different ways than I think you would expect. In trying to make the film, the first people we came in contact with were people looking for funding, or comedians who would work with us. It wasn’t until all of that was in place that we met Renee, which was 2011.

Edwards: But we had been working on it since 1998. She had been working on the film since 1993.

Firestone: You’re kidding!?

Pearlstein: In the film we talk about how things change over time. Talk about things changing over time—the resistance, or reaction in 1993 or 1998, when we talked about the subject of this film, until now, is dramatically different. Even in 2011, when we met Renee, it was still walking on eggshells. I imagined hate mail and protesting. That’s how much things have changed. I feel like we’re getting a different response. There have been so many types of satire over taboo subjects lately. The world is more schooled in it now.

Edwards: That’s kind of the point of the film—time is passing, and even in the interim of making the film the public response to the Holocaust is different. It’s changing all the time and will continue to change. Some of the examples of humor from the time period, which we researched—which were very shocking then—don’t feel shocking now. 70 years have gone by. You bring up 9/11, or child molestation or AIDS—other issues elicit a shocking response from people.

Pearlstein: Because that’s something they can remember. If you can remember it, it’s still taboo in a weird way.

You alternate a joke with a scene of drama, such as Renee recounting being examined by Dr. Mengele. Can you describe the structure of your film?

Pearlstein: The opening was so hard, because we had to strike that balance, and interweave two film styles. We also had to give the audience permission to laugh.

Edwards: And we also had to let the audience know early on that we were going to do that. Ferne was very adamant not to just have talking heads and clips, but an observational element to it. To combine those is very hard, never mind the subject matter…it was tricky. It was in the editing, not the planning. It was a very delicate process to walk that line.

I suspect Jewish film festivals might be disinclined to show your film. How do you think the Jewish audiences will respond?

Pearlstein: A lot of Jewish film festivals are writing me about the film on a daily basis.

Edwards: It could be the programmers are interested. We don’t know what the audience response will be. This film is not a comedy. It’s about comedy and it’s a filmabout bad taste. Ferne has made it in a tasteful way, in my opinion. We hope people understand this documentary itself is not trying to make light of any kind of tragedy, but illuminate it in a way that is new and fresh.

Pearlstein: And that’s why it was so important to bring Renee on. Here’s a woman who is not a comedian, but she has a good sense of humor. It shows through in every conversation, every experience she has. She can tell a story about one of her darkest situations, and she will still put a joke in there, almost every time.

Firestone: I remember when Mengele questioned me, “Who in [your] family is Jewish?” I thought it was ridiculous. I laughed at it. He kept asking me about my mother, my father, my grandparents. And I thought go myself: Here I am, with all these Jews. We don’t know where we are going, or what’s going to happen to us, andthat’s what he wants to know—whether my parents are Jewish? I mean, what else would I be doing here? If you think about it, it’s really funny. And that was before I knew where I was, or what the place was about. Before my head was shaved, or I was undressed. Humor is not fun. That’s the difference for me. To make fun of something, or laugh about something, it’s different than if you talk about humor. When we looked at each other with the shaved heads, it was funny—we looked ridiculous. We had no idea why they did it to us. It was a terrible what they did to us, but when we looked at each other, we looked ridiculous. We didn’t make jokes about it.

Pearlstein: People look back on that era and close it off to humor, but most of the European Jews who were going to the camps experienced years of discrimination and anti-Semitism. They got off that train, and [experienced] another form of degradation, and it’s terrible. But they didn’t think they were going that day to their death. It’s only in retrospect that we know what happened. So when Renee tells that story, and she says, “I see my friend, and we looked at each other, and they were wearing these huge outfits, and whatever…” it was a little funny.

I like the exchanges between Renee and her friend Elly, two survivors who have different outlooks on life. You can’t deny people their feelings and sensitivities; it is wrong to make jokes that might offend them?

Firestone: Jokes about the Holocaust are not proper. About the perpetrators, I don’t care, but about our situation, nothing is really funny. As I say, to make fun, and to have a sense of humor are two different things.

Originally published HERE