Hot Docs 2016 Review: The Last Laugh

The Last Laugh

When I was 15 years old, I worked at the local movie theatre. One of my coworkers, who wasn’t Jewish, decided he wanted to tell me a joke about Jews. Against my better judgment, I told him to go ahead. “What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza?” he asked. I cringed, worried about the answer. “What?” I asked. “The pizza doesn’t scream when you put it in the oven!” He laughed to himself for a solid minute, eventually stopping when I didn’t join in. He didn’t realize I was Jewish, for starters. Nor was he aware that my maternal grandfather had survived a Siberian work camp, having escaped the Nazis that killed his parents and sister: my great grandparents and great aunt. I snapped at him, declaring not only how unfunny the joke was, but also how stupid and insensitive it was to make a joke about the Holocaust. He felt immediate remorse, but still didn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to make the joke.

In some ways, this dichotomy, the issue of censorship and a complicated right to jest, is at the heart of The Last Laugh, a documentary that explores humour and the Holocaust. Interviewing entertainers like Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Rob and Carl Reiner, Judy Gold, Susie Essman and Harry Shearer, director Ferne Pearlstein explores the nature of humour and propriety.

The only thing that separates the The Producers (1967, 2005) from History of the World: Part I (1981), argues Brooks, is time. We have enough chronological distance from the Spanish Inquisition, Brooks suggests, that no one batted an eye at his outstanding musical number. However, when The Producers was released, both its original incarnation and its later Broadway rendition, some Jews were morbidly offended at his audacity. The suggestion is made throughout The Last Laugh, by Brooks and others of his generation, that to mock the Holocaust itself is verboten, but to mock the Nazis was empowering, and still is. Portrayals like that in “Springtime for Hitler”, or Charlie Chaplin’s depiction in The Great Dictator, aim to remove their authority, and therefore their power, through humour and mockery. For this generation, and those surviving the Holocaust, to laugh was to disarm.

In speaking to Holocaust survivors, including entertainer Robert Clary (Hogan’s Heros), we come to understand the integral nature of humour in the ghettos, and the death camps. Survivor Renee Firestone recalls laughing to herself when receiving a full physical exam from Dr. Mengele himself, knowing full well that most of the Jews being examined were about to be gassed. The redundancy of the exam gave her, and others, enough of a giggle to help survive.

Pearlstein brings to the forefront the question of why laugh? How could you find humour in such horror? The answer, resoundingly from survivors, is that without laughter, they would never have survived during or after the Holocaust. The Nazis couldn’t understand finding humour in anything that was happening, so their control was usurped through Jewish laughter.

But in answering the complicated questions of how one could laugh in the face of such turmoil, more questions are unearthed. Who has the right to laugh at such things, and who has the right to joke? Do you jest about the Holocaust, or is it only allowed to make fun of the Nazis? How far is too far? And are only Jews allowed to investigate the murky waters of humour and this particular strife? Are younger generations of comedians incapable of truly grasping the weight of the Holocaust now that older generations of survivors are dying? It evokes issues of censorship that are unavoidable.

In many ways, The Last Laugh raises more questions than it answers. However, it encourages its audience to be thoughtful in their laughter, to ruminate on why they laugh, and what is appropriate to laugh at. To laugh at screaming Jews in an oven, for instance, is grossly insensitive. However, there is humour to be found in Dr. Mengele telling you that, should you survive this, you should have your tonsils removed. They’re rather large.

The Last Laugh has its International Premiere on Sunday, May 1st at 1:15pm at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, with two more screenings on Monday, May 2nd at 9:00pm, and Saturday, May 7th at 10:30am.

Rewatched and Reconsidered: Ocean’s Twelve

Director: Steven Soderbergh (The Girlfriend Experience, Traffic, Che, Bubble, Full Frontal, Sex Lies and Videotape, The Informant!)
Writer: George Nolfi (Timeline, The Sentinel)
Producer: Jerry Weintraub
Starring: Clooney, Pitt, Cheadle, J. Roberts, Mac, Gould, Garcia, Damon, S. Caan, C. Affleck, Zeta-Jones
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 125 min.

First viewing (2004):

Rewatch (2010):

Steven Soderbergh has been my absolute favorite living director for some time now. It seems that in my eyes, everything he touches shines like the contents of Marsellus Wallace’ briefcase. So it’s always been with some trepidation that I bring up the only title in his filmography that I’ve always regretted watching: the second in his “Ocean’s” franchise: Ocean’s 12. The last time I had seen the picture was when it was released theatrically back in 2004. I remember being quite upset as I left the theater; not really understanding what I’d just seen and being a little miffed at why it wasn’t nearly as good as the previous film. I’ve been bad mouthing the film ever since without ever giving it a second look. Having matured in my cinematic tastes and now better able to understand where and why the visceral reactions come from me the way they do from a film, I decided it was only fair to give the only dark spot in my Soderbergh repertoire of knowledge a second chance and see if my memory serves or if this was just a film I didn’t get at the time.

This sequel starts off just about where the previous left off. Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) has located the Ocean gang and has given them two weeks to return all of the money they stole from him or they will die horrible, slow deaths by his hand. Since much of the money has been spent already and the crew is too hot to work in the States, to save their necks they head off to Europe to start a series of heists designed to make back the money they had already squandered. Upon arriving in Europe, they find that another thief, The Night Fox (Vincent Cassel), is always one step ahead of them; stealing what they want before they do. And to make matters even more intolerable and desperate, an American investigator (Zeta-Jones) is hot on their tale and unknowingly closer to them than she realizes as she is involved in a romance with the Brad Pitt character. The tale twists as The Night Fox proposes a challenge to the Ocean’s: snag an “impossible to steal” jeweled egg before he does and he’ll win their freedom from Benedict. And so the caper begins… sort of.

**SPOILERS TO FOLLOW**
Would you like to know more…?