In his memorable book The Life of Reason, philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who don’t remember history are bound to repeat it.”
That astute observation makes a compelling argument for why nonfiction film The Last Laugh should be on a must-see movie-going list for audiences.
The Last Laugh takes audiences on an enlightening journey to a dark time in history when the Holocaust claimed the lives of an estimated six million Jewish men, women and children in Europe, during the years of the Nazi regime and World War II. The documentary, unexpectedly, is about the question of finding humor in such tragedy, and includes archival footage of people performing vaudeville-like routines at cabarets in transit camps where Jewish people were herded on their way to concentration camps.
“These acts were filled with double entendres to keep the guards from realizing they were being made fun of,” Ferne Pearlstein says. Pearlstein, who co-produced the independent film with her husband, Robert Edwards, conceived the concept for The Last Laugh. They collaborated on writing the script; Pearlstein was also the director, cinematographer and editor. She brought a broad scope of experience to this unique project, including producing and directing 25 documentaries, generally in collaboration with Edwards. Tangerine Entertainment, a company founded by Amy Hobby and Anne Hubbell, produced the film with Pearlstein and Edwards. The Film Collaborative is handling cinema distribution.
The historic footage in the film is artfully integrated with commentaries that Pearlstein shot, with people ranging from Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried and Rob Reiner, to Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Renee Firestone, a 92-year-old survivor of the Holocaust who share memories and yes, humor.
There is a scene in which a lady buys a red rose and puts it on her husband’s grave. “Both of us were survivors, but both of us realized we are alive and we have to go on living. You can’t die while you are alive and think of the dark side of life all the time. You can’t survive that way,” she says. “I bring a rose because that’s what he used to bring me every day; one rose. I will never forget that.”
Pearlstein describes this ambitious endeavor as “an embarrassment of riches… We filmed commentaries with well over the 27 people included in the final cut. We struggled to include everyone, but it wasn’t practical.” Pearlstein lives in Brooklyn. Several interviews were done in New York City. She traveled to Los Angeles to film interviews five times and to Las Vegas once.
The archival footage integrated into the documentary includes artful use of black-and-white footage from The Jack Benny Program. A robber holding a gun says, “Your money or your life.” His victim responds, “I’m thinking it over.”
Commentaries integrated into the film are both memorable and insightful. One example: Silverman says, “If black people were in Germany in 1942, the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened… not to Jews.” Other new footage includes Brooks observing, “Comics are the conscience of the people. They have to tell us who we were, where we were, even if it’s in bad taste.”
There is film of a group of survivors sitting around a table discussing the Holocaust. One of them says, “Without humor, I don’t think we would have survived.” Compelling footage shows two female survivors having a conversation while riding in a gondola that is being rowed in a canal in a Las Vegas casino. One of them says, “You can’t live in the shadows. I enjoy life. I have three great-grandchildren.”
Pearlstein shot the new footage in Super 16 film format using her “ancient” Aaton LTR camera that she bought from another female cinematographer in 1998. An 8-64mm lens was on the camera, giving her flexibility for recording images from different visual perspectives.
The director says that that the inspiration for this ambitious endeavor traces back to 1990 when she and her friend Kent Kirshenbaum were with a group of journalists in Miami who were being given a tour of the then new Holocaust Memorial by an elderly survivor, and discussing Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus. The following year, Pearlstein enrolled at Stanford University where she earned a Masters degree in documentary filmmaking. Kirshenbaum was earning a Ph.D.
“Kent handed me a lengthy paper that he wrote based on that conversation in Miami called ‘The Last Laugh: Humor and the Holocaust’ during the spring of 1993,” Pearlstein recalled. “He said, ‘Make this into a movie.’ I finally took his advice some 20-plus short years later.”
Edwards recalls that Pearlstein told him about her idea for producing the documentary soon after they met in 1998.
“I told her that’s a great idea, because at that early phase of our relationship I would have said that about anything Ferne told me. Honestly, I thought it was a terrible idea. I though that she would never get it made. Not because I was put off by the topic. On the contrary, I thought it was bold and fascinating. But I thought that it would be impossible to get a movie like that funded and the right people to agree to participate.”
Pearlstein and Edwards collaborated on writing a proposal a few months after they met. They decided to put the project on hold after Life is Beautiful was released to theaters in 1997. The narrative film was about a Jewish man in a concentration camp who used humor to protect his son. It was a hit at the box office.
“Life is Beautiful would have dominated the discussion,” Pearlstein says. “We saw The Aristocrats in 2006 and heard the audience laugh at 9/11 jokes. That is when we decided the time was right. It still took five more years to raise start-up funds.”
They did copious research. Pearlstein credits Renee Firestone, one of the survivors, with being an essential source of information as well as being notable on camera.
“One of our goals was to explore ways that young people can learn about the Holocaust and other sensitive topics in a visceral way after the last survivors are gone,” Pearlstein says.
“As we get further away from the Holocaust, it becomes less and less visceral for younger generations, and that is worrying. When the last survivor dies and there is no first-person testimony left, it will mark a significant shift. One of my goals was to explore ways young people can understand the Holocaust and other highly sensitive topics.”
After the film was processed and converted to digital format, Pearlstein edited it at her home. It was an enduring endeavor. Pearlstein estimates that they shot around 40 feet of film for every one foot included in the final cut. “That doesn’t take archival footage we used into account.”
Post-production took place at Final Frame in New York. Will Cox was the colorist. Steve Giamarria at Sound Lounge, also in New York, did the audio mixing. (“Both of those guys are the absolute best,” Pearlstein says.)
The film premieres at Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York City on March 3, and will play at three Laemmle cinemas in Los Angeles beginning on March 17, and in 45 other cities across the United States. The documentary will subsequently air on PBS. In addition to the release, The Last Laugh has played at countless film festivals.
“We were recently showed the film at the Miami Jewish Film Festival, where the audience ranged from Holocaust survivors and their families to high school and college students who were relieved to see this topic addressed in a tasteful way,” Pearlstein says.
“One 16-year-old told me how much he appreciated letting him come to his own conclusions without being told what to think. That was gratifying.”
I should have asked Ferne and Robert one more question: What do you do for an encore in the wake of The Last Laugh? MM
The Last Laugh opens in theaters March 3, 2017, courtesy of Tangerine Entertainment and The Film Collaborative.