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April 22, 2016 8:45 am

New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

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Mel Brooks in "The Last Laugh."  Photo: Ferne Pearlstein.

Mel Brooks in “The Last Laugh.” Photo: Ferne Pearlstein.

Holocaust humor and the role that laughter played in the lives of Jews during World War II are the focus of a documentary that made its world premiere on Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

In The Last Laugh, first- and second-generation survivors, as well as famous Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, discuss their thoughts on when joking about the death camps is appropriate or taboo.

“Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no,” Jewish comedic giant, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the film. “Anything I could do to deflate Germans… ANYTHING… I did! Hitler was always funny!”

Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman, known for her often outrageous, bordering on offensive, routines, says: “Comedy puts light onto darkness, and darkness can’t live where there’s light. So that’s why it’s important to talk about things that are taboo, because otherwise they just stay in this dark place and they become dangerous.”

These and the views of other comedians are paired with a description of what life was like in Nazi concentration camps by Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone, who is at the center of the film.

The documentary also highlights how humor helped Jews in the death camps keep their spirits up, despite their inhuman conditions. Viewers are shown rare archival footage of cabarets they created for entertainment, and provided a glimpse into the kind of joking Jews did among themselves.

Firestone claims that survivors also joke about life in the camps.

“Humor kept me going after the Holocaust,” she said. “Without humor, I don’t think I would have lived this long.”

The Auschwitz survivor said there is a side to the atrocity that is rarely addressed.

“When people talk about the Holocaust, they talk about the horrors of the Holocaust, which it was. [But] they don’t talk about the daily life of the people there, and that’s a whole different story,” she said in an interview with Funnygirl.com. “People can’t understand…there are some things that sound humorous in the worst situations. From one hour to the next you didn’t know what was going to happen. As long as you were alive, certain things happened that you smiled about or said and laughed. You were smiling and thinking, ‘I’m still here, still living.’”

The Tribeca Film Festival said that that film’s director, Ferne Pearlstein, dives “deep into pop culture to find out where to draw the line, and whether that is a desirable – or even possible – goal.”

Last Laugh writer Robert Edwards said, “The dangers of joking about something like this are self-evident, but the dangers of putting it off limits to humor are more complicated. It becomes sort of sealed under glass and especially young people can’t even begin to approach it. That’s a loss.

Talking about the film’s goal, he told Deadline, “Well, we weren’t trying to make a comedy. We were making a film about comedy. Ferne has made a film about bad taste in a tasteful way. Which is not easy to do.”

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