(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