So when is it OK to make jokes about the Holocaust? And why is that even a pending question?
The Last Laugh is a multifaceted and extremely thought-provoking documentary about the place of comedy in contending with the Jewish genocide during WWII. In it, we’re introduced to survivor and Holocaust educator Renee Firestone and her daughter, Klara. Firestone’s life as an elderly widow, as a survivor connected to other survivors and as a woman committed to ensuring that people born well after the war have some level of understanding of the scope, scale and horror of the Holocaust is intercut with commentary from a dazzling range of mostly-Jewish comedians, thinkers and writers. The film takes a clean and fairly traditional documentary approach, cutting between Firestone and the various interviews, offering a great diversity of opinion among survivors and comic interpreters alike. But one thing is consistent: If you’re going to crack jokes about the Holocaust? They had better be really, really funny.
Of course, funny’s a personal thing. What Mel Brooks finds funny isn’t the same as what Joan Rivers found funny (by a longshot). What’s funny to Sarah Silverman isn’t necessarily going to tickle Gilbert Gottfried. Some people think Life Is Beautiful was a wonderful film and others think it’s an atrocity in its own right. What Sacha Baron Cohen finds funny makes me want to cower in a corner until it’s over. And try as she might to find a comic treatment of the film’s subject, Renee Firestone really can’t find any of it the least bit amusing.
The film raises a lot of fascinating questions about the purpose of comedy, the boundaries of “funny,” the obligations comedians have (or don’t) around taboo subjects and how time factors into the “funny” equation (it’s pointed out that no one gets particularly activated over invoking the Spanish Inquisition in comedy, but a few centuries ago that would likely have been very different). The Last Laugh contains diverse but harmonically cogent opinions (thought-chords, you could say). Most notably, it gets right to the heart of the matter: Why do we want—need—to joke about genocide? And why specifically this one? As Silverman points out, genocides (horribly) occur all over the world without Americans talking about them, much less cogitating over whether they’re valid fodder for comedy. “It’s just not currently happening to Jews,” she remarks.
For some context: Before the United States was even at war with Germany, before many people understood what was actually happening in the concentration camps, Charlie Chaplin, a seasoned maker of silent movies, chose to make The Great Dictator, his first “talkie” and a biting satire of Hitler. With that film, Chaplin made the audacious and eerie choice to play both the tyrant himself and an oppressed Jewish barber. Victim and victimizer: same face. It was a daring move (Hitler, though he denounced Chaplin as “a disgusting Jew acrobat,” was reportedly nonetheless a great fan of Chaplin’s films and, according to some, even got the inspiration for his signature moustache from Chaplin). So Hitler was very much aware of the filmmaker, no one was sure what effect the film might have on a political powderkeg and Chaplin later said he couldn’t possibly have made the film had he understood the scope of the atrocities in Germany.
Chaplin wasn’t alone—people were satirizing Hitler while he was in power, and they’ve been satirizing him ever since. (One of the most fascinating things in the film is listening to Mel Brooks describing the making of The Producers, and placing that against footage of Firestone visiting Auschwitz, remarking that “They make it almost look nice, compared to how it really was.”) While making Hitler the subject of comedy seems to cut him down to size, to take power away from him, it’s a totally different story to joke about what he did.
This provocative documentary contains some rare footage of cabaret performances inside the camps (the inmates at Auschwitz were very much using comedy as a coping mechanism), as well as a peek at the basically-never-seen Jerry Lewis film The Day the Clown Cried. Aside from this somewhat revelatory material, the editing and photography, while crisp and attractive, are not especially innovative, which one might see as a detraction or a strength—it does seem to telegraph that the artistic risks here are being taken by the subjects, not by the documentarian herself. The Last laugh circles around its core questions, examining them from multiple perspectives and showing that there’s really not much consensus on when and why something can become the subject of a joke—though most of the people interviewed are of one mind about the fact that we need jokes. We need to be able to laugh in the face of even (or especially) the most gruesome experiences. Being able to laugh at inhumanity gives us back our humanity.
Renee Firestone herself is a fascinating through line for this film, and her story and her personality and onscreen presence more than compensate for the lack of risk-taking cinematography or interesting editing. One could see this as a gracious and respectful treatment of the subject (I do), but for someone else it might feel a bit predictable. Still, whichever position you take, The Last Laugh is a well-crafted documentary and Firestone’s a wonderfully self-revealing frame for the director’s central questions.
Talking to a fellow survivor who insists that she cannot enjoy or find beauty in anything because of what happened to her, Firestone firmly insists that there’s no point to having survived if you don’t go on and love and laugh and appreciate—that humor is one of the keys to being a true survivor. She’s emotionally alive, clear-eyed, smart and able to hold the horror and grief of her imprisonment at Auschwitz in one hand while embracing the fact that she got out. At the same time, we see shot after shot of Firestone looking over her daughter’s shoulder at YouTube videos in which comedians attempt to contend with what happened to her. Her response is the same every time:
“I don’t think that’s funny.”
Director: Ferne Perlstein
Release Date: March 3, 2017
Amy Glynn is an award-winning poet and essayist. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can follow her on Twitter.