Director of ‘The Last Laugh’ on Holocaust and humor

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On May 16, the Moses Brown School and Temple Torat Yisrael will host a free screening of the 2016 documentary “The Last Laugh,” directed by Ferne Pearlstein.

The film, which premiered nationally on PBS’s “Independent Lens” in April 2017, poses a provocative question: “Are we allowed to joke about the Holocaust?”

I recently spoke with Pearlstein about the film and what it contributes to Holocaust education.

Q: What led you to this project?

A: In 1990, I was working for a newspaper that sent me to a conference in Miami aimed at rehabilitating that city’s image as a center for drug trafficking.

It was the year Miami’s Holocaust memorial opened, and a few weeks after the publication of Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” as a graphic novel. A friend and I took a tour of the memorial, and our guide was a survivor. 

In the course of our conversations, I asked what she thought of “Maus.” She got upset and told us “You cannot tell this story through the funny pages! There was nothing funny about the Holocaust!” We politely told her that we didn’t think “Maus” was funny at all, except in the darkest sense, that it just used the comic form to tell a very poignant story. But our guide wasn’t moved. She was understandably furious at the whole idea.

The moment stuck with us, and my friend went on to write his Ph.D. thesis on the question. His paper was titled, “The Last Laugh: Humor and the Holocaust.” A few years later, while I was in the midst of my studies at Stanford, he handed me the paper and said, “Make this into a film.”

Q: How hard was it to recruit people for the film?

A: When we first started sending out our funding proposal, we got a lot of feedback like, “Fantastic idea! Let us know if someone else says ‘yes’ first.” No one wanted to be the first to sign on. It was pretty much the same story trying to find people to do the film. Every comedian said, “Great idea! If you get someone to do it, call me.”

Finally, we went to our agent and asked if he had any connections with the comedians we had been trying to enlist.

He called back saying, “Rob Reiner will do it a week from Wednesday.”

That opened so many doors! [Reiner] spans three generations, and had so many connections. That started things moving.

Q: How did you find Renee Firestone [the survivor whose personal story is one of the three intertwined threads of the film]?

A: I knew I needed some non-comedians for the film, and one of the people I contacted was a child of survivors who had written a book called, “My Parents Went Through the Holocaust, and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.” I told her I needed a survivor who thought it was OK to laugh, and one who didn’t. I also wanted to tap into this whole dark humor among the children of survivors that no one really knows or talks about. She said, “I have the perfect mother-daughter pair for you.” When I met Renee and her daughter, Klara, I knew I had my film!

Q: In what way does “The Last Laugh” contribute to Holocaust education?

A: We’ve found that young people love the film. A lot of students who are otherwise a little disconnected from the topic appreciate coming at it from a different angle. They end up learning about it almost accidentally as they watch the film. I’ve been to Jewish schools where the students thanked me for giving them a portrayal of the Holocaust that is not overwhelming. There are very serious moments in the film, but something about the humor allows young people to open up and take it in.

Q: What has been the reaction to your film among survivors?

A: Well, Renee, who was initially a bit taken aback by the concept, talks about the fact that the film shows that people were still human, even in the horror of the camps. She says, “If you’re human, you laugh at something if it’s funny, no matter the circumstances.” Humor, and wanting to hold on to what is good in life, is what helped her survive the camps.

The free screening of “The Last Laugh” takes place on May 16 at 7 p.m at the Woodman Center at the Moses Brown School, 250 Lloyd Ave., Providence.

DAVID WASSER is a technology teacher and technology integration specialist at the Moses Brown School. He is a member of Temple Torat Yisrael, in East Greenwich.