Di­rec­tor Ferne Pearl­stein’s doc­u­men­tary ex­plores the hu­mour sur­round­ing one of the least funny events in mod­ern his­tory, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

‘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

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