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Camp Humour or Sublime Horror?

Simon Cooper How Many Holocaust Comedies Do We Really Need?

In 1972 the comedian Jerry Lewis made a film entitled The Day the Clown Cried in which a face-painted clown led Jewish children into the gas chambers. That film never got a release — probably the combination of clowns and the Holocaust was perceived to be beyond the limits of ‘taste’ for 1970s audiences. Not any more it seems. At least three movies, Life is Beautiful, Jakob the Liar and now Train of Life, have proved successes as Holocaust ‘comedies’. While these films have their precursors — To Be or Not to Be and The Great Dictator — these were made a long time ago.

So why now? Far from being an unrepresentable event, the Holocaust has become ubiquitous in Western culture, especially in the United States. Some examples: remaining survivors tell their stories on the Jerry Springer show; the pre-war photos of Anne Frank appear in a new Microsoft advertisement; and her story is dramatised in an upcoming Spielberg film. Meanwhile, Hadassah Lieberman, wife of the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, never loses the chance to gain currency by introducing herself to voters as ‘a child of Holocaust survivors’. Some examples are more exploitative than others, but they all work to normalise if not commercialise the Holocaust. In her recent book Remembering to Forget, Barbie Zelizer remarks on the iconic status of certain Holocaust photos, how the same photos are repeatedly circulated and reproduced, thus flattening historical detail and inviting tragic (if fleeting) emotions, but not understanding.

In one sense the Holocaust comedy is a welcome antidote to what can be described as the Schindler’s List phenomenon — the short-term catharsis revealed through the vicarious experience of horror and brutality, without context or understanding. The Holocaust simply polarises into a struggle between absolute evil and its hapless victims. The depoliticisation of the Holocaust does not begin and end with Spielberg however. A recent wave of criticism at the ‘Holocaust Industry’ — not only the exploitation of the Holocaust in certain quarters but also the elevation of the Holocaust to mythical heights — reveals what is problematic in such a move. Some Jewish critics have pointed out how the entire history of a people has been reduced to a decade-long tragedy. Others, such as Norman Finkelstein, have revealed how the ‘sublime’ nature of the Holocaust is used to deflect criticism of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. The circulation and repetition of Holocaust imagery means that it now appears everywhere, understood paradoxically as a unique event of pure inhuman evil. Other forms of genocide aided and abetted by Western states — Rwanda, Timor — pale by comparison, and are largely unrepresented (as opposed to unrepresentable).

Enter the latest Holocaust comedy, Train of Life. The humour of the film relies on the absurdity of its plot and the madcap nature of the village’s inhabitants. Hearing that the Nazis are coming, the villagers decide — via a plot hatched by the village idiot — to fake their own deportation. They somehow get a train; some of the villagers are trained to speak German and German uniforms are made; while others pose as communists and the rest pose as victims. No sooner do they escape their village than some of the role players come to believe in their roles — the communists rebel, the ‘Nazis’ become more authoritarian, and so on. In the midst of this are the humourous struggles — of a religious, sexual and social kind — that occupy everyday ‘Jewish’ life.

As in Life is Beautiful, the film relies on a massive deception in order to ensure the survival of its characters — faking the Holocaust. The charge of Holocaust trivilisation is countered through arguing that the triumph of the human spirit is revealed in the face of hopeless odds. Of course there are records of the type of gallows humour used in the camps, most notably by Stephen Lipman in his study Laughter in Hell. Part of the marketing package that goes with Train of Life is a special section on the specific nature of Jewish humour — pointing out how humour was, for Holocaust sufferers, a ‘defiant cry for life’.

Yet there is an important difference between modes of experience here — between those who experienced the camps, and those who experience its mediated representations. One of the problems with Life is Beautiful is that the comedy works to shield us from the reality of the Holocaust in the same way that Guido, the hero of that film, shields his son from the true nature of the horror. Train of Life attempts to avoid this problem via its conclusion. The whimsical, caper-like comedy is undercut by the final scene which reveals the ‘reality’ — the village idiot framed in a single shot inside a death camp — and we realise that he has fantasised the whole story — that he will not ‘survive’.

It is a powerful twist, yet ultimately it is asked to do too much. The final image, the tragi-comic face of the main character framed by barbed wire, proves to be too existential — a condemned man dreaming his escape — and lapses into the kind of iconic status linked by Zelizer to the act of forgetting. The edginess and potential radicality of a Holocaust comedy is all too quickly drawn back into our received patterns of reception. Witness the response to the film at the Venice Film Festival — a ten-minute ovation, and a demand that the film be considered for competition. Is this ready-made success in fact indicative of its status as affirmative culture — that we are ready for comedies about the Holocaust precisely because the free-floating nature of contemporary emotional life allows us to experience moments of humour and tragedy while the events which produce them are decontextualised — simply part of the universal flow of images?

If the Holocaust comedy can be regarded as the most recent ‘popular’ attempt to represent the Holocaust, the exhibitions and presence for the Melbourne International Festival of Daniel Libeskind — the designer of the Jewish Museum in Berlin amongst other things — represents one example of how the ‘Holocaust’ circulates within the sphere of high art. Libeskind’s architecture is visually stunning — full of exposed structures, fissures and partial forms. Informed by poststructuralist ethics, it creates an architecture of fragments. For instance, the Jewish museum in Berlin has no ‘entrance’ — one must pass through the older Berlin museum to gain access. Inside are dead ends, places which suggest exile, others which link to the older museum — emphasising links and discontinuities between the past and present, between Gentile and Jewish culture.

Such a building is highly effective in Berlin for obvious reasons. But what are we to make of Libeskind’s work outside of its ‘place’ — as a mobile work of art? Libeskind now designs buildings in the United Kingdom and the United States as well as Europe. The success of Libeskind’s style, in an era of endless arts festivals, faces the danger of transcending its connection to the historical events it attempts to invoke. If this is the case, then Libeskind’s radical architectural form simply becomes a high-art version of the same detached sublimity experienced in more popular modes such as film. In other words the ethics of avoiding co-opting the Holocaust into a singular, commodifiable narrative can all too easily be conflated into an uncritical celebration of discontinuity, which avoids the Holocaust’s historical context. The obvious influence of Libeskind’s work on the shard(s) of Federation Square (which lack any historical context) reveals the way in which aesthetic forms can be easily detached from their historical connections, emptying out the grounds from which architectural form, or even the radical possibilities of Holocaust comedy, might open the space for remembering as a political act.

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