The Last Laugh


Springtime for Hitler.

Springtime for Hitler.

(2016) Documentary (The Film Collaborative) Renee Firestone, Klara Firestone, Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner, Harry Shearer, Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah Silverman, David Steinberg, Larry Charles, Alan Zweibel, Etgar Keret, Carl Reiner, Robert Clary, David Cross, Lisa Lampinelli, Jake Ehrenreich, Zdenka Fantlova, Jeffrey Ross, Susie Essman, Abraham Foxman, Roz Weinman, Malala Sagal. Directed by Ferne Pearlstein

 

Humor is an intensely personal subject; everyone’s idea of what is funny and what is inappropriate varies, sometimes to astonishing degrees. There are always taboo subjects that even comics shy away from, but not all of them. There are subjects that some comics tackle that make even other comics a little bit uncomfortable.

This new documentary by Ferne Pearlstein tackles the interesting subject of what is inappropriate material for comics, concentrating on one of the most horrible events in human history – the Holocaust. More than 70 years have passed since Nazi Germany surrendered but there are plenty who think that jokes about it – even by Jewish comics – are wildly inappropriate. Even Mel Brooks, whose cult classic The Producers dropped jaws when it was released in 1967, says that there is a difference between jokes about the Holocaust and jokes about the Nazis.

Much of the film is devoted to Renee Firestone, an Auschwitz survivor who talks about cabaret shows in the camps used to keep the workers entertained and about the gallows humor employed by the prisoners to help make the days bearable. Other survivors of concentration camps take the opposite tack – the Holocaust was no laughing matter and that the prisoners couldn’t even crack a smile, let alone a joke.

I tend to side with Renee – humor is a mechanism that many humans use to cope with stress and what could be more stressful than living under the constant threat of death? Still, six million Jews and others died in the camps – can we joke about them without trivializing them, or upsetting those who lived in them?

These are the kind of questions that are brought up by various comedians of different eras – old school like Brooks and Carl Reiner, mid-school like David Steinberg and Gilbert Gottfried and more recent vintages like Lisa Lampinelli and David Cross. There are also writers like Alan Zweibel, Malala Sagal and Etgar Keret as well as Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League which monitors anti-Semitism in the media. Foxman has some strong opinions as to what is appropriate and what is not, some of which you may agree with or disagree with. I think it’s a telling point that when Foxman pooh-poohs the argument that some comics make that the jokes keep the Holocaust from being forgotten; Sarah Silverman ripostes that if we haven’t forgotten the Holocaust why do genocides continue to this day?

To the filmmaker’s credit, no side seems to be given advantage other than that of the Survivors themselves and particularly Firestone. She is the emotional centerpiece of the film and some of the most moving moments take place as she remembers being separated from her sister whom she never saw again and having to deal with the death of her husband much later in life. Robert Clary, who played a French prisoner of war in the comedy Hogan’s Heroes used his real-life experience in the concentration camps for his character and reveals almost casually of 13 members of his family to be arrested, he was the only one left alive by the end of the war. How does one survive that? Clary doesn’t say and perhaps it’s better that we don’t know.

Towards the end of the film other taboo subjects are tackled such as 9-11 and use of the “N” word but almost in so casual a manner that they might better have not been mentioned at all. Clearly the Holocaust is the big subject here and thus it should have remained. I suspect the filmmakers were aware that there might be some backlash “what, only the Jews have suffered?” which is completely unfair. Nobody’s saying that these other subjects aren’t important and shouldn’t be handled delicately but quite frankly, I think the filmmakers would have been better served sticking to the subject that brought them to the dance, as it were and use it maybe as a gateway to other taboos. Perhaps that was what they were trying to do but quite frankly I think it was a case of trying to do too much. That’s really the only issue I had with the film.

There are, of course, plenty of jokes here and quite a few of them will get you laughing. One of my favorite bits is the “Springtime for Hitler” musical number from the 1967 version of The Producers and the audience reaction shots which might be how some modern audiences in this era of political correctness might react to some of the humor here.

I’m a big believer in freedom of speech and comics, as Mel Brooks himself observes are the conscience of the country. They allow us to look at ourselves and how we react to things that are controversial and uncomfortable; restricting them with political correctness is an absolute abomination and one of the most things that as a liberal I’m most ashamed of my left-leaning friends. It is a healthy thing once in awhile to be outraged.

There is some thought-provoking stuff here and no ready answers. Like everything else, it’s all up to how you perceive things and what affects you. You may be offended by some of the jokes here – or you might laugh your tush off. Is there a line that cannot be crossed? I don’t know; maybe. Should only Jewish comics joke about the Holocaust or gay comics about AIDS or African-American comics about slavery and racism? There are those who think so; I do not. At the end of the day, we are all humans and if we believe that, truly believe that, then all experiences are shared experiences. While the Holocaust was aimed mainly at those of the Jewish faith, we can mourn the loss of these people because we believe we are all brothers and sisters; the loss of even a single Jew makes all of us less.

Sure, that’s a bit simplistic (and sorry this movie review has appeared to become a rant) but the message is that it’s harder to hate someone if you feel connected to them. If there were fewer divisions between us wouldn’t there be fewer reasons to hate? I’m not sure if that’s the message that these comedians are trying to send by joking about the Nazis or even the Holocaust but it’s a message that can be inferred and wouldn’t it be a better world indeed if we all looked at the world that way?

REASONS TO GO: The subject is truly thought-provoking. Some of the jokes are hysterical. There are a few moments that are heart-rending. Brooks is a national treasure.
REASONS TO STAY: Segments on 9-11 and other taboo subjects seemed a bit rushed and didn’t add anything to the film overall.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you will find plenty of profanity, humor that some might find inappropriate and a few images that are unsettling.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April of 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aristocrats
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Freedom to Marry

The Girl on the Train (La fille du RER)


The Girl On The Train

Emilie Duquenne & Catherine Deneuve react to the news that Herman Cain is making set visit.

(2009) Drama (Strand) Emilie Dequenne, Michel Blanc, Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Demy, Ronit Elkabetz, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Jeremy Quaegebeur, Djibril Pavade, Alain Cauchi, Amer Alwan, Melaine Leconte, Raphaeline Goupilleau. Directed by Andre Techine

 

What motivates people to lie? To deliberately mislead people, to say that something is so that isn’t? Often, we don’t know ourselves why we do it – generally it is to attract some kind of attention, the kind that makes us feel better about ourselves. But what happens when it gets out of hand?

Jeanne (Duquenne) is the sort of girl who floats through life like a leaf in a stream. She rollerblades through Paris with her headphones on, her music shutting out everything and everyone. She lives at home with her mother Louise (Deneuve). Louise runs a day care center, and gently urges her daughter to get a job, which Jeanne is less enthusiastic about. Louise contacts an old lover, Samuel Bleistein (Blanc) who is now a high-powered lawyer in Paris to set up an interview for Jeanne but that goes disastrously. Jeanne’s resume is rather thin and her diffident responses reveal that she doesn’t have a whole lot of enthusiasm either.

What she is enthusiastic about is Franck (Duvauchelle) who is training for the French Olympic Wrestling team. Franck is a bit of a bad boy which appeals to Jeanne, and when a shopkeeper-friend of Franck’s ask him to move into his apartment above the shop so that he can watch over his stuff while he is away on an extended trip, Jeanne moves in there with him.

However, things go horribly wrong there, causing Jeanne to move back home and her frustration and anger boils over. When she shows up at home with a swastika carved in her stomach, some of her hair cut off and her clothes in tatters, she tells her shocked mum that a group of North Africans had accosted her on the train and believing her a Jew because she was carrying the lawyer’s card, beaten her up.

The incident becomes a cause célèbre in France with the media making Jeanne the center of attention of a nation. The attention makes Jeanne uncomfortable and Louise thinks she knows why – she believes that the attack never happened and that her daughter made it up out of whole cloth. Why, she does not know but she does know that the truth will come out eventually, as it usually does.

Director Techine is a veteran of French cinema who has some marvelous films to his credit, My Favorite Season among them. This, his most recent film to date, is based on an actual incident that occurred in France. However, it isn’t the anti-Semitism that really is the focus of this story but of the girl, the one who was the center of the controversy. Why she did what she did (and there are no real answers given, at least none that make any  sense) and how it affected two families – her own and the Bleisteins, whose grandson Nathan (Quaegebeur) is about to have his bar mitzvah and is dealing with problems between his estranged parents Alex (Demy) and Judith (Elkabetz). Throughout the movie the emphasis is on the family dynamics, which is to Techine’s mind (and mine to be honest) the more interesting subject.

Duquenne is an able actress and despite being 30ish manages to play much younger very effectively. She gives Jeanne a waif-like quality as well as that diffidence I mentioned earlier. Jeanne is crowned by charming curly hair, but it is an empty crown – she seems happiest when she is tuned out from everything and tuned in to herself.

Deneuve is the grand dame of French actresses. Her compassionate heart is Louise’s most striking feature; Louise is a loving parent but somehow seems to love her daycare charges a little more than her own daughter who baffles her in many ways. That is often the way when it comes to mothers and daughters. Louise doesn’t know how to reach Jeanne which is also something parents wrestle with. It’s not Deneuve’s most striking performance but it is a realistic one.

The Girl on the Train is one of those movies that seems a bit unremarkable when first you see it but the more you think about it, the better it gets. Like good French wine, it ages not only in the barrel but in memory as well and we all know how much age benefits good wine, no matter the vintage.

WHY RENT THIS: A capably executed jewelry heist film that brings to mind The Bank Job albeit in a stuffier vein. Michael Caine is, as always, impeccable. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No new ground is broken here. Moore never really gives me a sense of who her character is.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and a bit of bad language, as well as some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Caine’s grandfather had a similar job to Hobbs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $305,140 on a $9M production budget; the movie was a box office failure.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Underworld Awakening