The Last Laugh - LFF Review

Mel Brooks in  The Last Laugh

Mel Brooks in The Last Laugh

Can you make a good joke about the Holocaust?  Nazis, by all means.  But the Holocaust itself?  That is the premise of Ferne Pearlstein's superb documentary on the subject.  To broach such a subject, you need to have the roster to bring weight to the subject and my goodness, Pearlstein has gathered a who's who of the great and greater of Jewish comedy.  It'll take too long to list them all but to name a check a couple you have Carl and Rob Reiner, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert GottfriedHarry Shearer and, of course, Mel Brooks.  And yet, despite that group and the clips of the comedy that have made their names, the contrast Pearlstein weighs throughout the film is that of survivors Renee Firestone and Elly Gross, who have different takes on the subject.

The comedians discuss what makes a good joke and the standards of "good taste" that it has or has not to live in  Mel Brooks' The Producers is the touchstone for all and given the status of the movie now, its hard to remember that so much of it was considered in bad taste at the time.  Though the film is about that taste reaction, people didn't get it.  One the other side of the coin, Robert Clary, who emigrated to the US after the war, was getting stick for being in Hogan's Heroes.  And yet, as Nazi jokes became more mainstream as time passed, they only went so far.  As Shearer says, the bar for a mother-in-law joke is low that you have a lot of leeway, but a holocaust joke has the bar so unreachably high that it would need to be perfect to work.   But the dissection of comedy, and the art of the joke, is tempered by the wonderful Renee.

Renee is the star of the film from the minute she walks on screen.  She is jovial, open and determined to enjoy the life she has.  Filmed in the aftermath of her husband's death, there is an added sadness to Renee that is evident and yet not holding her back.  While the comedians discuss their experiences and in Robert Clary's case, performing in cabarets in the camps he survived (the actual footage of this is truly incredible and disturbing), Renee continues to be Renee.  She visits schools to discuss her experiences, she goes to the Holocaust museum and travels to Las Vegas for a reunion of survivors.  Renee is the heart of the film and her reactions to both her fellow survivors and her daughter showing her the jokes in question on YouTube are what grounds the film in such a compelling way.  While the debate about how far different people have taken comedy, Renee is our touchstone for how far humans can be removed from humanity itself.  The story she tells of her bathing costume is heartbreaking.  Renee's testimony to the Shoah Foundation is embedded below.

Director Fern Pearlstein (centre) with two of her subjects Elly Gross (left) and Rene Firestone (right)

Director Fern Pearlstein (centre) with two of her subjects Elly Gross (left) and Rene Firestone (right)

Of course, the debate about Life is Beautiful is had, with both opinions for and against it's merits (I'm on the fence personally).  The elephant in the room isn't touched on for a while, the one film directly made to be a holocaust comedy and that has never seen the light of day, Jerry Lewis' The Day the Clown Cried.  Jerry Lewis is still going, but his film is locked away until ten years after his death.  The clips we have are shown and the gathered cast discuss it.  Harry Shearer has seen it and he gives a brief dismissal of its merits, but that Lewis doesn't appear is not something that holds Pearlstein back.  The balance she achieves in the editing of The Last Laugh is a true masterclass.  What could tonally have been all over the place, instead dances so lightly between the comedy and the pathos that you find yourself understanding the difficultly of the process of creating a joke, the emotional impact of the delivery of it and the cost of its reception.  That The Last Laugh carries such an emotional punch to go with the laughter is huge credit to the crafting and care of it's director/editor.

I saw some impressive films at this year's London Film Festival.  I've written in gushing terms about La La Land already.  Goldstone is a remarkable achievement and clarion call for increased investment in indigenous cinema.  Brimstone an elegant yet brutal western that shone a big spotlight on Emilia Jones as a coming star.  But The Last Laugh was the one that stayed with me.  While I laughed at the jokes and the stories, it was Rene's voice that grounded the film so eloquently that stayed with me.  The Last Laugh is a true testament to the power of documentary and I cannot wait to see what Ferne Pearlstein has coming up next.