Aspen Filmfest: Doc asks ‘Is it OK to laugh at Nazis?’
If You Go …
What: ‘The Last Laugh’ at Aspen Filmfest
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Wednesday, Sept. 21, 5:30 p.m.
How much: $20/GA; $15/members
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
Can jokes about Nazis and the Holocaust be funny?
The documentary “The Last Laugh” asks this provocative question and examines it with the help of concentration-camp survivors and prominent comedians. The film is the opening-night documentary at the Aspen Filmfest on Wednesday at the Wheeler Opera House.
“The Last Laugh” doesn’t take sides or find a consensus on where to draw the line. Nobody — survivors nor comics — draws it in the same place or defines “bad taste” in the same way.
“It was important for me to make a film that didn’t tell people what to think, that asks the questions,” director Ferne Pearlstein said in a recent interview.
For her film, Pearlstein talked to some of the funniest people on Earth — Rob Reiner, Mel Brooks and Sarah Silverman among them — about one of civilization’s most horrific events.
Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone helps guide viewers through the debate. She discusses the use of humor in concentration camps, some of which included cabaret shows, and argues that it’s important to laugh. The crux of the film is in a survivors’ gathering in Las Vegas, where Firestone and others debate the propriety of Holocaust humor and Firestone has an incisive discussion with a fellow survivor about humor while riding a gondola in The Venetian.
“Renee was the key to the film for me,” Pearlstein said. “She gives the audience the OK to laugh. But also she doesn’t find everything funny, which is what I found interesting.”
For instance, the film shows Firestone watching the run of Holocaust jokes from Silverman and Joan Rivers and reacting in disgust.
By way of comparison, the documentary ventures into other transgressive topics in comedy, from Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trial in the ’60s to Louis C.K.’s bit on child molestation last year.
The great Mel Brooks, who has been making Nazi and Adolf Hitler jokes publicly since the 1950s and filled “The Producers” with them, offers a surprisingly nuanced take. Though he’s often made Nazis and Hitler the butt of jokes, he refuses to touch the Holocaust in comedy.
“I can’t go there,” he says in the film.
Pearlstein began all of her interviews by asking her subjects if they had a Holocaust joke. Most of them, like Brooks, said they did not but that they did have Nazi material.
“That pattern emerged,” she said. “It never dawned on me that there was a distinction between the two.”
A representative of the Anti-Defamation League argues that humor can trivialize tragedy and that parody of anti-Semitism can actually inspire it. Silverman, on the other hand, believes that talking about the ugly side of humanity keeps it from festering and gaining power.
“Otherwise they live in this dark place and they become dangerous,” she says.
For Pearlstein, the roots of the film go back more than a quarter century. She recalled visiting the then-new Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach in 1990 and meeting a survivor there. They struck up a conversation about Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus,” which outraged the woman.
“There’s nothing funny about the Holocaust!” Pearlstein recalled her saying. “How can you cover it in the funny pages?”
That conversation inspired an academic paper by a friend of Pearlstein’s, Kent Kirshenbaum, titled “The Last Laugh: Humor and the Holocaust.” Based on that, Pearlstein started working on a script. But she set it aside after the controversy over the 1998 Oscar-winner “Life is Beautiful,” passionate critics of which decried its humorous treatment of the Holocaust (a phenomenon that the documentary touches on — Brooks calls it “the worst movie ever made”).
When the documentary “The Aristocrats” came out in 2006 and touched on Gilbert Gottfried’s 9/11 jokes, Pearlstein was emboldened to jump back into the project. She began her interviews with Rob Reiner.
A film about humor and the Holocaust might seem a risky proposition in today’s sensitive cultural environment of self-censorship, trigger warnings and safe spaces on college campuses. But on the festival circuit, Pearlstein has been gratified by the conversations “The Last Laugh” has sparked among audience members.
“What I’ve been finding is that it’s a way for younger audiences — Jewish and not Jewish — to see it, relate to it, laugh at the jokes, see the serious parts without having to see a very serious, heavy film that they might not feel connected to,” she said. “Whether things go too far or not, at least we’re discussing it and at least we know it’s out there.”
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