Making fun of the Nazis has become fair game. Bugs Bunny, Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, and The Marx Brothers have all used them for the sake of comedy and satire. None have done so as frequently or successfully as Mel Brooks in The Producers with Springtime for Hitler. Not only was his play a huge success in North America, it went over big in Germany and also won accolades when it was performed in Yiddish at the Segal Centre. Brooks has stated, “With comedy, we can rob Hitler of his posthumous power.”
Now along comes Jojo Rabbit, a World War II satire that follows a lonely German boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) whose world view is turned upside down when he discovers his single mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. Aided only by his idiotic imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi), Jojo must confront his blind nationalism.
The movie, that will not be everyone’s cup of tea, is a dark comedy. Like a high wire act it tries to find a balance between humour and the horrors of war. Not an easy task. Many Holocaust victims and survivors used humour as a salve and a defence mechanism weapon despite their powerlessness. But, not surprisingly, Jews have wildly different perspectives on humour when it comes to the Holocaust.
Renee Firestone, a survivor from the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp who emerged from extreme suffering, including the death of her sister after Nazi medical experiments, has become a voice for Holocaust survivors. For the past three decades, the 95-year-old Southern California resident has toured the country and spoken in countless school classrooms and college auditoriums. She states, “You cannot live in the shadows. I speak about the Holocaust all the time, but I enjoy life. That’s my revenge.” She makes her position clear. “It’s okay to make fun of the Nazis, but not about the killing.”
Although I can laugh at jokes about Hitler, for me joking about the Holocaust will always be off limits. Life Is Beautiful, a 1997 Italian comedy-drama film directed by and starring Roberto Benigni, had scenes in the barracks of a concentration camp in which Jews were kept like cattle, and it made jokes about it. The film won a lot of awards, but it disgusted me.
In 1972 Jerry Lewis wrote, directed and starred in The Day the Clown Cried, as a circus clown imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. The film has never been released. The comedian donated a copy of the film to the Library of Congress — possibly the sole copy in existence — on the condition that it will not be screened in any form until 2025.
Lewis always had second thoughts on how it would be critically received.
I believe Larry David, who I consider a brilliant humorist, stepped over the line last year while hosting Saturday Night Live with the following joke: “I’ve always, always, been obsessed with women, and I’ve often wondered, if I’d grown up in Poland when Hitler came to power and was sent to a concentration camp, would I still be checking out women in the camp?
What I do find funny is this subtle hilarious joke about Hitler told by comedian Gilbert Gottfried.
“Two Jews are sent to assassinate Hitler. They stake out his home, but an hour after he’s supposed to be there, he hasn’t shown up. Two hours later, still no sign of Hitler. One Jew turns to the other and says, “Gee, I hope nothing happened to him.”
The more time and physical distance we have from a disaster the easier it is to begin recovery from the emotional pain of the event. With the passage of time people become more receptive to humour. According to the experts the use of humour in tragic situations is a step toward health and healing. They say that time heals, however for many who have survived the Holocaust or have lost members of their family — it never will.