We Laugh So We Don’t Cry: The Humor in Holocaust Films

The Holocaust is no laughing matter. Not only an immense and terrible tragedy, the Holocaust is also an extremely well-recorded tragedy. Many have found comedy in World War II or, more often, the Nazis as seen in films as varied as The Producers and Inglourious Basterds. (The Nazis are a comic goldmine. “Adolph Shitler” writes itself!) But the Holocaust itself is generally glossed over in such works of entertainment, either given a passing mention or existing solely in the background as an ever-present threat. After all, it’s just too serious. Nevertheless, several filmmakers have attempted to find humor in this humorless event.

Most often, one finds moments of gallows humor creeping around the edges of otherwise somber films. Consider this clip from the end of Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. (Remember: Polanski himself is a Holocaust survivor.)

Adrien Brody’s Władysław Szpilman has survived every murderous attempt by the Nazis only to find himself nearly killed by his ostensible allies, a near-disastrous misunderstanding resulting from Szpilman’s desire to survive the harsh climate. Had he been killed, the irony would have deepened the tragedy. Instead he survives, allowing us to laugh lightly at the mix-up (though only lightly given that said mix-up occurs towards the finish of a somber affair).

Few filmmakers, however, have dared confront the Holocaust from squarely within the comedic genre. One of these brave/stupid souls was noted slapstick auteur Jerry Lewis, who in 1972 starred in, directed, and co-wrote the concentration camp comedy The Day the Clown Cried. The film follows washed-up German clown Helmut Doork (Lewis) as he is imprisoned in a concentration camp for a routine making fun of the führer. Once there, Doork entertains the children with his antics and is eventually forced to lead the children into the gas chambers, Pied Piper style. The film ends with Doork and the children laughing as gas fills the room.

The Day the Clown Cried remains unreleased to this day.

Two things can be agreed upon:

1) Finding humor in an event as tragic as the holocaust requires a deft, nuanced touch.

2) Jerry Lewis, for all his many talents, is about as subtle as a sledgehammer (or this metaphor).

While this film was supposed to have been, as Spy magazine notes, “Lewis’ first serious film as both director and star, a proto-Interiors, ‘a turning point in the career of one of the most unusual performers in history’, as the move press kit put it,” Lewis’ input into the script — for example, changing the protagonist’s name from the innocuous Karl Schmidt to the far loonier, Lewis-esque Helmut Doork — shows that he could not forgo his comedic instincts, wrongheaded though they might have been.

In the same Spy article, Harry Shearer, one of the few souls to have seen a cut of The Day the Clown Cried, said of the infamous film:

With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object.  This was a perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. Oh My God! — that’s all you can say.

But where Jerry Lewis failed, a manic Italian succeeded. Released in 1997, Roberto Benigni’s La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful) proved that humor could be found in the Holocaust — it just needed heart. Halfway through the film, Benigni’s Jewish-Italian character and his young son are imprisoned in a concentration camp. To hide the horrors from his son, Benigni engages in slapstick routines and farce that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Jerry Lewis film. By motivating the humor with a father’s love for his child, La Vita è Bella succeeds whereThe Clown Who Cried fails.

As Benigni’s character co-opts the Nazi’s orders for his own uplifting purpose, so too has Benigni co-opted the tragedy of the Holocaust for his uplifting film. If a filmmaker can set the story of a daring heist within this tragedy, why not set a comedy as well? Putting a humorous lens on a bleak event allows filmmakers to not only reshape this terrible history, but to make it their own.

Stanley Kubrick once criticized Schindler’s List, saying the film wasn’t really about The Holocaust since “The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. `Schindler’s List’ is about 600 who don’t.” But what’s wrong with that? We know the Holocaust. We know it’s a terrible event. We don’t need another film to show us that. Most of these films use their sparse humor to prevent the overwhelming sadness from consuming the audience; the comic relief is a coping mechanism. In What Is a Jewish Joke?, Henry Eilbert discusses how facets of Jewish humor sprung from the Jews’ persecution over the past millennium. Eilbert writes:

The Jews suffered massacres, murders, tortures, rapes, forced conversions, legal and physical restrictions and endless humiliations in Christian Europe.How does one adapt to such misery? One gets accustomed to being fearful, wary, ready to move, if necessary, and, of course when things are so difficult, one may find some refuge in humor. But the jest was bitter. Remember the story about the ghetto cemetery? Unable to get additional space, Jews asked for an anti-dying ordinance!

Eilbet goes on:

Much of Jewish humor deals with such negative facets of Jewish experience. Therefore, it is wry, bitter, ironic. A common Yiddish phrase identifies it as lachen mit yashtsherkes, which means literally “laughing with lizards” but is best translated as “laughing through the tears.”

La Vita è Bella succeeds as a great comedy because its humor is motivated by pure love. Where other films might “laugh with the lizards,” La Vita è Bella uses its humor for good — protecting a child’s innocence — instead of as a defense mechanism to take down evil. The pratfalls are backed by sincere emotion while remaining pratfalls nonetheless. The film is neither bitter nor ironic. Life is indeed beautiful. More films should celebrate it.

Justin Geldzahler declined using the title suggested by Gilbert Gottfried, “The Lolocaust.”

We Laugh So We Don’t Cry: The Humor in Holocaust Films