Hitler, suffering from laryngitis, mounts a podium in Berlin at the end of World War II to deliver a stirring oration. Out of sight from the masses, a Jewish thespian intones the words that the lip-synching dictator apparently is shouting.
A concentration camp survivor, who had survived his internment by acting as a dog for a sadistic commandant, encounters a Jewish boy who fancies himself to be a dog in a psychiatric hospital after the war. The older survivor adopts canine behavior to bring the boy back to reality.
Scenes from two recent movies, these scenarios could easily lend themselves to blatant slapstick and sight gags in the hands of some cinematographers. Instead, Dani Levy, director of the first film, “My Fuhrer,” and Paul Schrader, who directed the second, “Adam Resurrected,” take the high road.
The depiction of a Jew delivering Hitler’s bombast, near the end of “My Fuhrer,” and the man-turned-dog on all fours in “Adam Resurrected,” are all the more effective because the humor is implied, but delivered only in small doses.
This, in films that earned the sobriquet — thanks in no small part to Hollywood’s publicity machine — “Holocaust comedies.”
The two films show that Holocaust humor is no longer an oxymoron, and that the mix of humor and the Holocaust in the hands of creative artists is no longer a shock with the result limited to farce. Subtlety is entering a realm that at first was considered taboo, then lent itself to questionable — in the opinion of many critics — hyperbole.
How can you view the Holocaust through a prism of comedy? The answer, at least a common, early cinematic answer, was through gross, over-the-top, almost maniacal satire that made it clear that the perpetrators of evil, not the victims, were the targets.
That was the approach of the acknowledged first masters of the genre, Mel Brooks, who broached the unbroachable — history’s worst horror — with ham-handed strokes of comedy, goose-stepping line-dancers and a drug addled Fuhrer; and Roberto Benigni, who attempted the unthinkable, wringing laughs from a concentration camp. Their humor was nearly self-reflective, winking at the audience, conveying the message that the producers were sympathetic but lacked the confidence to employ humor in a nuanced way.
The two latest entries in this small-but-growing field show a confidence both in the abilities of the producers and the sophistication of the public.
“Adam Resurrected,” which opened earlier this year to major Oscar buzz but quickly died at the box office, and “My Fuhrer,” the English-subtitled German film that premiered two years ago and made its New York City debut last month, indicate that so-called Holocaust comedies have grown up. Neither one is particularly funny. Moving, but not funny.
“Adam Resurrected,” starring Jeff Goldblum, is a particular anomaly: the film in the Holocaust-and-humor series most obliquely about humor, it is at the same time the least humorous of them all.
Director Paul Schrader’s product is no funnier than the nonlinear novel by Israeli Yoram Kaniuk on which it is based. Unless you find irony funny; what “Adam Resurrected” lacks in outright comedy, it compensates for in irony.
In spirit and in setting, “Adam Resurrected” most closely follows in the footsteps of “The Dance of Genghis Cohn,” the British film starring Anthony Sher, based on Romain Gary’s novel, which was set in postwar Germany.
“My Fuhrer: The Truly Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler,” produced by Swiss-born, German-resident Dani Levy, which presents the implausible scenario of an interned Jewish actor becoming Hitler’s acting coach, and confidante, in the waning days of the Third Reich has its funny “Hogan’s Heroes”-ish moments. But it is also, on the whole, not a funny film. Clever, but not funny.
The two movies indicate the emergence of a new generation, one that can treat the Shoah with respectful humor, a daunting task for sure.
In a similar vein, writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s current “Inglourious Basterds,” a loose remake of a 1978 Italian film, brings a comedic touch to a theme of wartime revenge. The film that Tarantino calls a “spaghetti Western but with World War II iconography,” which stars Brad Pitt, depicts two separate Jewish revenge plots against the top Nazi hierarchy.
Although not strictly a Holocaust movie, “Inglourious Basterds” is another sign that humor is finding a place in cinema that tangentially deals with the Shoah.
Decades after the Holocaust, the continuing viability of films that deign to introduce humor into the sacrosanct subject of genocide and cruelty, a tacit sacrilege in the immediate wake of the war, makes the statement that while artistic memorializing of the era guarantees that the survivors’ legacy will not fade, their voices speak in a less-solemn tone. This points to the Jewish community’s confidence in its ability to look at its collective trauma in a non-traumatic way; other nations that have suffered grievous losses in the last century, like the Armenians and Cambodians and Rwandans, have not reached the point of using humor in their artistic depictions of their tragedies.
Today, because of the success of “The Producers” on Broadway and “Life is Beautiful” on screen, the thought of using the words humor and Holocaust in the same sentence is no longer shocking.
Today, films of humor don’t have to be funny.
This is a function of creative necessity (most of the compelling, dramatic stories of wartime death and survival have probably been told already); of temporal distance (contemporary Jews, the second and third generations born to the survivors, are more psychologically prepared to approach the topic as symbolic comedy rather than blatant tragedy); and of assumed knowledge (an educated moviegoer knows that storm troopers weren’t cuddly, that concentration camps weren’t a romp, that the highest ranks of Nazi hierarchy weren’t about to bring members of the despised race into the inner sanctum of the Chancellery.)
The humor of contemporary Holocaust cinema is informed by a surfeit of knowledge about the subject, not by a paucity; embarrassed in light of postwar revelations by the comedic touch they had employed in “The Great Dictator” and “To Be or Not to Be,” Charlie Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch testified that they would not have made humorous cinema, or would have done it differently, had they known the extent of Nazi atrocities.
It is impossible to state what brand of humor was conveyed in the highly celebrated but never viewed “The Day the Clown Died,” Jerry Lewis’ 1972 putative tour de force about a clown who accompanies a group of Jewish children to their death, since the film for hard-to-determine reasons was never released. But the publicity surrounding its production surely helped pave the way for the Holocaust-and-humor films that followed.
Now established, the trend has come of age.
“Adam Resurrected” — whose director, Schrader, is not Jewish — takes place in Israel, a few years after the war, but is less about the Holocaust than its aftermath. It is about haunted protagonists. About painful memories. About societies facing and ignoring the experiences of the Jews who came out of the Final Solution physically intact but emotionally scarred.
Goldblum’s moving depiction of an institutionalized Holocaust survivor who had performed as a magician and cabaret-circus impresario in Berlin before World War II and survived in a concentration camp by using his wits is effective because the fictional Adam Stein was not funny post-Liberation.
Which is true to the Israel of the 1950s. The Holocaust was rarely spoken about then, and when it was, it was only in the most reverential of terms. Certainly without humor.
“My Fuhrer” is set in the rubble of a defeated Berlin. Using historical footage, it spans a period of five days, implying but eschewing graphic violence. The film poses a moral quandary — how much can complicity with a genocidal regime be sanctioned for the sake of self-preservation? — but does not obliquely answer it.
Levi uses duplicitous and buffoonish Nazis, a dispirited Hitler, a bordering-on-Freud Jew and a Potemkin Village in the heart of the German capital to emphasize the relative spiritual superiority of oppressed over oppressor.
As in many films of its ilk, the Jews have the last laugh.
It is no coincidence that the last decade has been the golden age of such “humorous Holocaust” films — Czech director Jan Hrebejk’s “Divided We Fall,” French Radu Mihaileanu’s “Train of Life,” and Robin William’s standout performance in “Jacob the Liar” are part of this group — just as it is no coincidence that Tova Reich’s “My Holocaust,” a scathingly sarcastic novel about “ownership” of the Holocaust, didn’t appear until 2007.
And it is no coincidence that the humor is changing.
Cinematic and literary depictions of the Holocaust long ago entered the public domain.
Now, humor is an established tool of the artists. Now, as in “Adam Resurrected” and “My Fuhrer,” the humor is subtle.
Staff writer Steve Lipman is the author of “Laughter in Hell: The Use of Humor During the Holocaust” (Jason Aronson, 1991).