Directed by: Ferne Pearlstein
Written by: Ferne Pearlstein, Robert Edwards
Featuring: Gilbert Gottfried, Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Jeff Ross, Lisa Lampanelli, Susie Essman, Alan Zweibel, Larry Charles, Etgar Keret, Robert Clary, Harry Shearer, David Cross
Produced by: Ferne Pearlstein, Robert Edwards, Amy Hobby, Anne Hubbell, Jan Warner
Cinematography by: Ferne Pearlstein, Anne Etheridge
Editing by: Ferne Pearlstein
Official Selection of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival
“The Holocaust is over, we must rise from its ashes.” – Avraham Burg
“Nazi punks, fuck off!” – The Dead Kennedys
Ferne Pearlstein’s labor-of-love documentary, The Last Laugh, tackles head-on a question that has bugged every family friend, member of my childhood temple, and summer camp buddy I have known since I was a Jewish toddler: is it okay joke about the Holocaust? There is also a follow-up not widely asked in our allegedly inclusive society: is it acceptable to laugh if somebody else does it? Pearlstein, a singular nonfiction auteur who shot, edited, directed, co-produced, and co-wrote the film, allows her subjects to answer for themselves alone. But seeing as the internationally famous people she speaks to are all hilarious, Jewish comedians (except for Lisa Lampanelli, a brashly funny shiksa), we cannot help but enjoy having a little fun at the Shoah’s expense.
The filmmaker (of Sumo East and West and the recent One More Time) helixes two kinds of interviews: those she conducts with entertainers, and those with story-tellers. The key characters from the latter group are Renee Firestone, a self-possessed Jewish Survivor and public speaker, and her daughter, Klara, who plays her mother YouTube clips of Lampanelli, Sarah Silverman, and Louis C.K. cracking wise about the Holocaust. Sometimes Renee laughs, other times not, but Pearlstein depicts her as a woman that – in the aftermath of her immense and sometimes tragic early life – still values simple pleasures, like comedy. That being said, having seen the film, I’m still unsure if she would giggle or sneer at Gilbert Gottfried’s Tōhoku earthquake jokes.
Gottfried is one of the legendarily irrepressible subjects to speak in favor of laughter as a Jewish medicine, as are Silverman, Carl and Rob Reiner, and Harry Shearer. It seems obvious that these comedians would believe in facing trauma through humor, so it shocks when Mel Brooks of all people expresses reservations about how to handle Nazis onscreen. No one thinks Life is Beautiful accomplishes that goal respectfully, for example, and Pearlstein’s subjects take the piss out of Roberto Benigni (David Cross’s comments about him are bound for viral fame). But Pearlstein’s decades-long experience as a documentarian and cinematographer opens people like Gottfried and Alan Zweibel up to more intimate and considered commentary than they have perhaps ever given on film. Make no mistake, this is closer to a Comedy Appreciation course than a histrionic exploration of personal experience à la Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. What little weeping is in The Last Laugh comes from the civilians.
If anything, Pearlstein pushes the comics toward something equal-and-opposite to Lanzmann’s solemn, sensitive tone; not mockery, exactly, but wryness and self-awareness. Larry Charles, the executive-producer of Curb Your Enthusiasm, treats Holocaust jokes like a given in contemporary comedy – and why shouldn’t he, we concede, when Chaplin, Brooks, and Larry David do, too?
In preparation for accusations of insincerity, Pearlstein intercuts between Firestone’s educational talks at the Museum of Tolerance and “The Last Survivor Weekend”, a convention about the Holocaust in Las Vegas (strange place for a get-together, no?) Firestone and her cohort debate amongst themselves whether there was humor in the camps or not; some survivors wave off the notion with frustration. “How dare someone suggest the presence of laughter in 1940s Germany,” they imply. Pearlstein seems aware that there is an insurmountable artificiality to these scenes that distorts the film’s pleasantness, and luckily she does not stick to them overlong. Perhaps it was necessary to keep the movie from being so-funny-it-is-offensive, but to be boring would have been worse.
Is theirs an unforgiving or arcane relationship to the Shoah in need of reconsideration, or a practiced response to decades of Holocaust denialism and sadly recurrent waves of international anti-Semitism? Although Pearlstein never pits one opinion against the other, we do detect a strong sense of adoration for the humorists. Several big laughs come from archival material, like personal footage of comedian Robert Clary’s early performances or Louis C.K.’s brilliant “Goodbye, Jews!” bit on Conan. By contrast, the sequences with survivors are visually dispassionate, rendered through hand-held photography and a series of two-shots mapping their conversations. Even the Firestones’ interactions are lightly stilted by the presence of the filmmakers, with Renee asking her daughter about a set: “Is that funny?” We know her mother’s answer even before Klara responds.
If the film was intended as a tool for Jewish Americans to expand their dialogue, I worry that the battle for civil conversation remains an uphill one. The script from Pearlstein and Robert Edwards (her co-writer, co-producer, and co-life partner), while inquisitive, is bound to court a hot pile of controversy where there should be none. Holocaust Remembrance and its accordant annual holidays exist specifically to expunge some of the anguish and hurt in survivors, their families, and societies permanently damaged by involvement in the World War. But informed conversationalism comes with gut disagreements and traumas.
Consider how widely the shroud of guilt still extends over Jewish tourists in Europe – the last time I was in Berlin, I was asked “if I needed help,” on the basis of my religious-looking silhouette. You can understand, therefore, how hard is to picture German audiences seeing this film and thinking, “Finally, we can lampoon Auschwitz!” Open conversation remains a pipe dream, despite Pearlstein’s best efforts.
Nonetheless, this movie’s direction and editing are so authoritative and engaging that any aspiring Holocaust satirists would do well to follow the rules of public engagement set down by its pundits.
The Chosen Audience Viewers around the country will receive these rules when the film hits national theaters (it is already open in New York City and will open in Los Angeles on March 17), but two have stuck with me since the film’s World Premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.
First, all of the profiled comedians in The Last Laugh agree: the key to joking about this particular genocide is to write something universally funny, like C.K.’s about Schindler’s List or one of the hundreds of tasteless lines from The Producers: “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty – come and join the Nazi party!” And finally, of course, is the warning that anyone trying to wring laughs out of Holocaust material should be prepared for public excoriation by the Anti-Defamation League (who are represented here by a spokesperson) and the Jewish Federations of North America. No one wants you to get fired from Aflac.