KNOW LAUGHING MATTER
Director Ferne Pearlstein’s documentary explores the humour surrounding one of the least funny events in modern history, writes Philippa Hawker
‘Do you have a Holocaust joke?” This was Ferne Pearlstein’s opening line when she started to conduct interviews. For a documentary about the Holocaust and humour, it made sense to cut to the chase, to ask comedians about their material and what they were prepared to put out there.
Some did have a joke, many didn’t, but they all had something to say on the matter. Pearlstein’s documentary, The Last Laugh — the closing-night film at the Jewish International Film Festival, which runs nationally through this month — has a lot of comic material, not surprisingly. But it’s also a story about history and memory, about the uncomfortable and the unsayable, and what it means to try to bring this sort of material into the open.
It took a long time to make, far longer than she anticipated. Pearlstein, an experienced documentary director and cinematographer, spent years trying to get the film off the ground.
She found it difficult to get funding. “I think there was some fear around. Certainly in 1993” — when she started work on the film — “there was. I think time has passed, you see more humour and satire in response to difficult events. I feel like had I made it then, I would have had hate mail and protesters. But like they say in the film, time makes a huge difference.”
There are still ripples of anxiety around the documentary, she says. “To this day, there are certain people who are afraid before they see it that I’m going to be saying the Holocaust is funny, it’s great to laugh at it, which I’m not doing at all, and I don’t think the film does.”
The Last Laugh — which takes as its epigraph German anti-fascist writer Heinrich Mann’s “Whoever has cried enough, laughs” — doesn’t simply confine itself to comedians and their controversies. It’s also the story of Renee Firestone, 90 years old and counting, an Auschwitz survivor with some remarkable stories about the past, and strong feelings about the present.
Firestone brings something vital to the film, Pearlstein says. “I had the benefit of years of research and I always knew I didn’t just want to interview comedians. I knew I wanted some sort of observational story within the Holocaust community. I didn’t know what yet but I knew I wanted it to be the heart of the story.”
Pearlstein came across Firestone with complete serendipity when she was arranging her first round of shooting after she finally obtained some funding in July 2011. She had already written a wish list with dozens of comedians’ names on it, but she needed help to get someone to commit to the project. “People were saying, ‘Great idea, let me know when somebody else comes on board.’ No one was willing to be first.”
Actor and director Rob Reiner (who starred in All in the Family and directed films such as The Princess Bride and This is Spinal Tap) was the first to agree to be interviewed on camera. Pearlstein, who lives in New York, wanted to make the most of the trip to Los Angeles to film him. She rang another of her subjects, Hanala Sagal (author of memoir My Parents Went Last Laugh Through the Holocaust and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt) and asked for suggestions for other people to talk to.
“And she said, ‘Oh, I have the perfect mother and daughter for you.’ Renee goes around the world fighting against genocide worldwide and her daughter Klara started 2GLA [Second Generation, Los Angeles, a pioneering support group for children of survivors].
“I had a phone call with them and they had such a funny dynamic instantly.” The first session of filming was even better. She knew immediately: “This is the film. I just got so lucky.”
It wasn’t easy, nevertheless, to bring those elements together. She asked herself questions about the comic content. How funny does it have to be? Who can tell the jokes? “It doesn’t have to be in any particular order, but how do you climax it and sum it up? That was the huge challenge. That, and the Renee story that felt like another movie,” she says, until she found the way to make it work within the documentary as a whole. “One of the pleasant surprises that came out in the edit was how much the film was about memory, I hadn’t expected that.”
On that first session, she shot Firestone in the kitchen talking about a visit from the doctor — she means Josef Mengele — who told her, “If you survive this war, you had better have your tonsils removed,” Firestone recalls, laughing. She had other things on her mind. Yet “when I survived and came back, when I thought about what he said, it was funny”.
Mel Brooks, left, was at the top of a list of comedians Ferne Pearlstein, below, hoped would contribute to The