Is Life Beautiful? Can the Shoah Be Funny? Some Thoughts on Recent and Older Films
Sander Gilman toils with the confusing emotional relationship between horror and humor, investigating the links between the two in regard to the Holocaust. He sets up a distinction between the reality of the Holocaust, which demands seriousness, and the representation of the Holocaust, siting scholars such as Terrence Des Pres, who believes that humor can be used as a coping mechanism. Gilman looks at various films about the Holocaust and the works of various Jewish comedians in order to propagate that approaching the Holocaust by way of humor is rarely attempted, as laughter is not the socially constructed reaction. Films that have been successful in political mockery of World War II Fascism such as Charlie Chaplin’s, The Great Dictator, date back to pre-Holocaust production, before such use of comedy was deemed taboo or by a conspicuous Jewish director.
Gilman turns to Life as Beautiful a successful integration of comedy and the Holocaust because of its human not Jewish appeal and uses Jakob the Liar by Jurek Becker as a means of highlighting its success. Gilman suggests that the film is “quasi-autobiographical” as it implicates Benigni’s father’s experiences, an Italian non-Jewish soldier. Gilman speculates that the success of the integration is due to the film’s non-Jewish world that separates the Holocaust from the past and the future. Moreover, the laughter is encouraged because it confirms the success of Guido’s actions to save his son, the more we laugh the better job Guido is doing in protecting his son and if our expectations are fulfilled we feel good about laughing.
Despite several differences and parallels, Benigni’s film unlike Becker’s, was made in the 1990’s and by a self-conscious non-Jew. His emphasis on the human tragedy of the Holocaust regardless of religion is something Gilman believes makes his integration of humor and holocaust feasible.