The Holocaust isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when searching for comedy. But maybe it could be. Ferne Pearlstein’s film “The Last Laugh,” screened this Thursday at the University Center Theater, delving into the realm of black comedy—in other words, humor about subjects considered taboo or offensive. Also available on Amazon Prime, the film features Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone, who investigates the importance of humor when addressing tragic events. As it turns out, finding the humor in these events for many Holocaust survivors is both freeing and humanizing.
“I thought it (the film) was a great idea because the Holocaust was always presented so inhuman, and this gave it sort of a human touch,” said Firestone. “She [Pearlstein] was the first person I knew that really thought we were still human beings while we were in the camp because, you know, only if you were not human would you not laugh at something that’s funny.”
Pearlstein is an accomplished cinematographer, film editor, writer and director. But all that experience gave her little influence on her confidence approaching “The Last Laugh,” and such a sensitive subject matter made her nervous.
“I’d been trying to make it (the film) since 1993. However, I was just finishing film school and I knew that this was too important of a project to do without experience, so I didn’t start it right away.”
Having scored a whopping 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, “The Last Laugh” has been screened all over the world. It stars not only Holocaust survivors like Firestone, but comedians, writers, and producers like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Harry Shearer, Jeff Ross, Judy Gold, Susie Essman and Larry Charles. It is Firestone, however, who takes the spotlight.
“Renee goes around the world speaking about the Holocaust and she has an amazing sense of humor,” Pearlstein said.
“Well, either you do or you don’t (have a sense of humor),” said Firestone. “I know people who are always gloomy, always sad, always talking about horrible things. I always wonder: Why? Can’t you smile? What keeps you so down all the time? … You have to enjoy smiling. When I laugh at something, when I smile at something, I feel good.”
Firestone, 93, was a teenager when the Nazis took her and her family to Auschwitz. She outlived all of her family members in the camp. Her sister Klara, whom she named her daughter after, happened to look “more Jewish” than blonde-haired, blue-eyed Firestone did, and became the subject of horrific scientific experimentation. After the war, Firestone confronted the Nazi doctor responsible and discovered Klara was eventually shot and killed.
“Most people think you have to say something really funny to laugh. It doesn’t have to be something you hear or say or talk about, though. I could see a Nazi soldier trip and I would laugh about it. We (other concentration camp members) would get together and have a good time.”
Firestone’s outlook has in many ways also shaped Pearlstein’s perspective in a way that’s closer to home.
“I’ve learned so much about humanity but also about myself personally. Some people have said that if you were funny before the camps, you were funny in the camps because that’s the person you were. And what I realized about myself is that I’m the person who gravitates toward those funny people,” Pearlstein said.
Using an inner sense of levity, Firestone was able to live through countless atrocities at Auschwitz. Her concern later was whether she would be able to present her story in a unique way, a way that made people listen and care. How could her story stand out in a sea of tragedy? This is where she felt Pearlstein’s film succeeded.
“Who wants to know about the Holocaust?” Firestone said. “But when they started to ask me if I’d tell my story, I thought it was the most wonderful thing. The world must know. And she (Pearlstein) came along with the humor. I said, ‘Oh, people will think I’m crazy to do this.’ But now this is one of the most wonderful Holocaust films I know.”