Interview with Ferne Pearlstein, filmmaker of The Last Laugh
Today is the last day to watch The Last Laugh for free on PBS. Catch it also on Amazon Prime in the US and Canada.
[/icon-box]In a wide-ranging, enlightening and sometimes chillingly relevant interview, Jewschool spoke with Ferne Pearlstein, the director of the Holocaust comedy documentary The Last Laugh. The film explores the phenomenon of humor as it relates to the Holocaust, featuring interviews with comedians like Mel Brooks and Sarah Silverman about their Hitler jokes and footage of the cabarets that existed for propaganda purposes in some Nazi concentration camps.
Read further for Ferne’s tales of the film’s long inception, its reaction among Holocaust survivors (and among Trump voters), the fun of interviewing Mel Brooks, and how the film’s meaning changed since the election of a new US President.
JewSchool: I want to cut right to the chase: This is a really uncomfortable subject matter for a film – what drew you to something that is controversial or maybe uncomfortable in this way?
Ferne Pearlstein: Right. Wow, that’s a very interesting question. In 1990 a very dear friend of mine and I were in Miami, and they had just built the Holocaust Memorial then, and we went on a tour, and I continued a discussion with the survivor after she gave us the tour. And we had just read Art Speigelman’s Maus. You know it had just come out, just won the Pulitzer Prize, it was…talk about shocking for its time! And it was the first graphic novel, there was nothing of its kind, so the survivor was very upset when we brought it up. Not angry with us, just at the concept. She literally said to us, “There’s nothing funny about the Holocaust. You can’t cover it in the funny pages.” And we had this fascinating conversation with her. We found out that she actually had never read it, but she just refused to, and the whole concept was very upsetting.
[pullquote align=right] It only took me until 2011 for me to be able to raise money for it because it was so controversial.
[/pullquote]And then [my friend] and I went off to different grad schools, and along the he way just continued this idea of “Is it OK to use the comic form or humor in any way?” and he started researching this idea and found that there had been humor in the camps and in the cabarets and did this 25-page paper called “The Laugh Laugh: Humor and the Holocaust” about this subject. And this was in 1993 and he handed me this paper and said “Make this into a movie.” And it only took me until 2011 for me to be able to raise money for it because it was so controversial!
JS: Oh okay, so you did bump into problems making it because of how controversial it was?
FP: Oh absolutely. I mean, he gave it to me in 1993 and I’ve been trying to make it since 1998. And from a lot of funders or comedians or even potential producers in the comedy world, we would get a lot of “Neat idea, let me know when somebody else says yes.”
JS: So nobody wanted to be that one to take the chance on it?
JS: And actually until I saw the movie, I didn’t know about the cabarets in the camps – in some of the camps. I found that footage just astounding.
FP: Now of course that’s not in the death camps. That’s in Westerbork, which was a traffic camp, and they also had cabarets in Terezin [Theresienstadt], which was a red cross camp. And you know that’s propaganda footage, right? It’s what the Nazis wanted us to think, like “Look it’s not so bad!” But the cabaret was a tradition that came out of Germany, and so ironically it was brought into some of the camps or even the displaced persons camps after the war.
[pullquote align=left] I spoke to a survivor in San Francisco who emceed a comedy thing, like people making jokes behind his barracks in Auschwitz.
[/pullquote]But what we did find is that even though at Auschwitz there was no cabaret, there are different stories I’ve heard. I mean, Renee [Firestone] in the film talks about the woman who used to do pantomime, which was a very quiet way of entertaining the women in their barracks. I spoke to a survivor in San Francisco who emceed a comedy thing, like people making jokes behind his barracks in Auschwitz. So there were different things.
And Renee Firestone, who is basically the star of the film, she says “Humor is a natural instinct, and if something is funny, you laughed.” Even if something was funny in the camps you would laugh. It might just be a sort of impulse, or a little smile, and I’m not saying people were having fun. That’s not what I’m saying. And I’m also not saying that everybody laughed. You see the woman, Elly Gross, in the film. She was not laughing. She doesn’t have any recollections of seeing it, or finding anything funny. But she has a totally different experience, and her experience is just as valid as anybody else’s who had a different reaction.
JS: She’s the one who, when they’re on the gondola ride, says “I can’t even really enjoy things like this,” right?
FP: Yeah, she was younger than Renee in the camp. Renee, up until the day they were rounded up, she had friends that weren’t Jewish. Her family was completely assimilated. Elly was from Romania. She talks about how her oldest memories of being a small child there were people spitting at her for being Jewish. It was a very different experience and she was only 15 when she went, which is terrifying. So she has a whole different set of memories. Also I do believe Renee was born with a certain spirit that allows her to laugh, that makes her see that sort of funny or dark, twisted way of looking at the world, and not everybody does.
JS: Right, right. So I noticed and wrote in my review that Renee is hands down the heart and soul of the film. When did you know that she was going to be your star?
FP: So I always knew I was looking for something that would offset the interviews and the clips, but I didn’t know what. But I knew. I knew style-wise what I had imagined, but I just didn’t know what that was going to be. And what basically happened is I finally got the money in July of 2011 and my husband and producing partner Robert Edwards is a screenwriter and director, and his agent’s at CAA [Creative Artists Agency]. And we took our massive list of comedians we wanted to interview, and we’re like, “Do you know anyone on this list? Can you help us get somebody?” And so he took the list, and then he called us back and said, “Rob Reiner said he’ll do it a week from Wednesday.”
FP: (laughing) So we were in New York, Rob Reiner was in LA, we had money in the bank, but that was it. We didn’t have a crew. We didn’t have a plan. The only thing we knew was I was shooting in Super 16mm film because that’s how I prefer to shoot. So that was going to be an expensive trip to go and do one interview. And I thought, “Well, I’ve got money to do more. Let’s make this happen.”
So through Rob Reiner we were able to get a couple other comedians. Susie Essman and Harry Shearer said yes. Of course Rob Reiner, you know everyone has so much love and respect for him, it opened up so many doors in that world for us.
[pullquote align=right] Renee says, “Is it true what they’re saying about [Hitler]? Do we have to worry about it?” And her father says, “Don’t listen to that comedian. Don’t you see he looks like Charlie Chaplin? He’ll be out of office in no time.”
[/pullquote]And I also had the benefit of so many years of research. So I go through my notes, and I’m like “Who’s in Los Angeles?” And this woman, Hanala Sagal, who wrote My Parents Went Through the Holocaust and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt, she was in Los Angeles. So I called her up, she agreed to be in it, and when we were talking I asked her if she could help me find anyone else – either a survivor or a child of survivors because we also in our research found that there’s a really dark sense of humor amongst children of survivors.
And it’s sort of like a very private kind of joking, where they’re not joking about the camps or anything like that, but they might make jokes about what it felt like to be the kid – their life was different than their neighbors, you know? – and poke fun at the quirks that their parents had. But they’re very protective at the same time, so they are jokes that they don’t share with everybody. Totally understandable, but it was fascinating.
So I said that, and she said, “Yes, who are you looking to talk to?”
[pullquote align=left] But you have her daughter there in that scene saying, “No, mom, this is what they mean,” or, “It is funny.”
[/pullquote]And now this was not with my idea of my observational story yet, I said, “I’m looking to speak to a survivor who absolutely does not think it’s okay to laugh, and I’m interested in finding a survivor who does think it’s okay, and I also want to speak to the children of survivors,” and I explained what I just said to you. And she said “Oh, I have the perfect mother and daughter for you!” The daughter started Second Generation Los Angeles, Clara. The mother goes around the world speaking about not just the Holocaust but genocides worldwide, and she’s an activist, and they both have an incredible sense of humor.
And I got on the phone with them and knew from the moment they answered the phone. They had a really funny dynamic, and Renee was just very open to the idea of talking about it. And I always knew I wanted her to be a sort of guide. I don’t think it’s a black and white issue. I don’t think she has to think everything’s okay to be our guide. And I don’t think everything is okay! And there are different circumstances, like: Who are you telling the joke to? Who’s telling the joke? What’s the context? All those things. And she helped provide different contexts for us to ask those complicated questions.
JS: Right, there’s that scene when they’re watching videos. Did you find the videos for them to look at online?
FP: Well, we of course knew about all the clips, but then we had the idea: What if they watched some Holocaust jokes? All you have to do is punch in one on YouTube, and you see Ricky Gervais, you see all these other jokes pop up. So it was my idea to have her watch them. That was one of the very first things we shot. That, and her telling the story about the Dr. Mengele visit, the tonsil story. Those are our first couple days of shooting, and we shot with them for over four years.
JS: Oh wow, I didn’t realize it was that long.
FP: Yeah, so our very first shoot was October 2011, and then we continued to film because I shot and edited simultaneously, and our last shoot was the fall of 2015, and then it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival 2016.
JS: So four years of shooting. You must have had a ton of footage. How did you pare that down?
FP: I did, but we would do a shoot, and it would be six months till the next shoot, so it wasn’t like we were shooting straight through. And because I was shooting in film I had to be very careful about how much we shot. So if you compare to someone who shoots digitally, I have a lot less footage than you would think. There were shoots that were between three days and six or seven shooting days. There weren’t that many that had that many, but at the beginning they did. So it average of five-day shoots, and we did five shoots in LA, two in New York, and one in Las Vegas. So it wasn’t like we were just constantly, constantly following, but if we got a yes from a comedian we would revolve a shoot around it.
JS: And then it took a while to get access to any comedians that were willing to do it?
FP: Well, once we got the money, we actually got Rob Reiner very quickly. And so then the ball just started rolling. It started happening. And then we were able to from that first shoot create a sort of trailer. And when we knew we had this amazing story with Renee and her daughter Clara, and they told us “Oh, the weekend of December 10th,” which was only a month and a half away, “we’re going to this convention in Las Vegas. So then it was like, “OK, we’re making this film.” And we went there, and we came back to LA in the spring for our first shoot. So that was the only shoot that was based on an event that had at a set time.
JS: And in first scene Renee and Clara are they’re in this overgrown Nazi bunker. Were they doing that anyway, or was that your idea?
FP: That’s an incredible story that actually did not make it into the film, which is really upsetting. I tried and tried and tried, and it was just sort of its own piece, and we couldn’t make it work. But the story of that bunker is that actually in Los Angeles. So in the ‘30s there was a group of Americans who were either part of the American Nazi Party or they called themselves Silver Shirts. They started to build what was going to be a 200-room home and the headquarters for Hitler once he took over – once he finished conquering Europe and he came to the states. And they were creating this self-contained world with its own water system and an indoor pool and its own places to grow their own agriculture. And it’s an enormous bunker, basically. And it’s in the middle of Will Rogers State Park. And what happened was right around Pearl Harbor they got arrested for being terrorists, and the structures never got finished building. So we took Renee and Clara into this bunker for a tour of this thing. And it was amazing—she was amazing—but it just felt like its own separate film, and no matter how I tried I could not make it work.
JS: But you do get that good joke in about “Well, we couldn’t wash our hands at Auschwitz!”
FP: Yeah, so I was able to do it and I couldn’t even say where the bunker was because it took people out of the movie, like “Los Angeles? What are you talking about?” so I had to just say “bunker.”
JS: I was reading up on your background, and I saw that you have a cinematography background. And I was noticing in the opening shots that the photography of the bunker was gorgeous, and didn’t realize you were shooting on real film. I’m a film projectionist, so I really appreciate that.
FP: Oh my god, amazing!
JS: So one thing I was thinking about is that people don’t necessarily think of documentaries as requiring photographic chops, but I really appreciated it.
FP: Thank you! I’m always upset that people think that it looks too good for a documentary. Like, really?
JS: Right! So tell me why it’s helpful to have a film and photography background when making a documentary.
FP: Well, it’s interesting because I started my career as a documentary still photographer. And of course the image doesn’t work if it doesn’t have the aesthetic quality. So to go then to documentary film, where that was something that took away from it, was so counterintuitive for me. But it’s certainly has taught me how to be really intimate with the footage and the people I’m filming because for some reason – even though in a way because it’s less intimate because you’ve got literally a thing between you and your person – for some reason it’s given me the bravery to get in closer.
JS: That makes sense. So speaking of it being really personal to tell the story, does your family have any Holocaust connections, and if so have you gotten any feedback from them about whether you should’ve made this movie or not?
FP: Ironically, I have had so much support from the Holocaust community. That was something I was obviously very nervous about, especially because I don’t come from a family where we have survivors in the family. But the point of view from within the community is “We’ve heard this story told in so many ways. This is a new and valid way of hearing about it.” And of course this is not necessarily true of all survivors but certainly for people who work with survivors, they’ve heard these stories. They’ve known about them. So it’s sort of refreshing that they’ve come out.
My husband and I like to say that we made a film about bad taste but we made it in good taste. At least we hope we did! So I think that helps. If I was just making a film to shock people…which I fear people worry about before they see it because they can’t get their head around what this film is going to be. But I think that helps.
[pullquote align=left] Most people come up and say, “Thank you. My father would tell these stories. I wish he were alive to see it.”
[/pullquote]We’ve had many survivors and children of survivors at the screenings. So far we’ve been in like 75 film festivals, and we’ve opened theatrically, and we have had only the occasional survivor who was uncomfortable about it. But talked about it! But most people come up and say, “Thank you. My father would tell these stories. I wish he were alive to see it.” So I’ve had incredible responses from the Holocaust community, I have to say.
You know, being on PBS is going to open this up to so many thousands and thousands and thousands of people more that of course I can’t say that it’s going to be accepted by everybody, but we’ve had so far incredible responses. And a lot of people saying, “I was worried about seeing your film, and loved it,” and thanking me for making it.
Then I had a very interesting reaction when our European premiere was in Munich, of all places. And somebody in the audience said, “Thank you for making this film, and thank you for not being from here.” In other words, you couldn’t have made it if you were German. But they appreciated the film.
JS: Right, I lived there for a year, and they’re extremely cautious. I mean, rightly so! But they’re just extremely cautious, so they probably couldn’t have made something like this. But mazel tov on it getting such wide release and going to be on Independent Lens! Are you surprised that it’s getting this kind of response and release?
FP: Well, my last film was on Independent Lens, back in the Stone Age. But I’m thrilled that it’s on Independent Lens. But just the festival responses – and they’re still coming in! The requests are still coming in. It never occurred to me that I’d be working harder showing the film than making it. It’s not only that people are really interested in seeing it, but people really want to talk about it. That’s been the most gratifying thing – how much people want to talk about the film.
JS: One of my big questions while I was watching the film was, knowing that it debuted a year ago at Tribeca, and that was before the world kind of changed for us, I was wondering: Could she have had any idea that we’d be seeing all this rise of fascism and all these threats of anti-Semitism. Or would that have changed the way you made the film? What’s your response to all that?
FP: That is such a good question. I get a lot of the question, “Has it changed since it’s come out?” Which it has—dramatically changed. But would I have made it differently? That is a really fascinating question. The question is, would I have been able to make it? Would people have been even more nervous about making it? Because they were already nervous about making it.
[pullquote align=right] You could hear the gasps in that room. There were 500 people in that room, at least… It was chilling.
[/pullquote]I just know that how it worked out was that 24 hours after the results of the election came in, I was in nine back-to-back film festivals. And on the Thursday morning I flew to Rochester where my film was the opening night film at the High Falls Film Festival. And just to give you an idea of how different, the programmer pulled me aside and he said, “Last month I watched one film, but tonight I watched a completely different film.” And that’s what it was. It was a completely different film.
And it’s been showing so much that I rarely sit through the screenings anymore, but last week we were in Annapolis at the film festival there, and I decided to sit for a while. And there’s the line where Renee is talking to the students, and she says, “Is it true what they’re saying about this man? Do we have to worry about it?” And her father says, “Don’t listen to that comedian. Don’t you see he looks like Charlie Chaplin? He’ll be out of office in no time.” Well if you could hear the gasps in that room. There were 500 people in that room, at least. And it was the first time I had heard it, and it was chilling. And when I put that line in, it was a throwaway line. I put it in because here I made this film about comedians, and also this was one of the more serious scenes but I wanted to keep the audience remembering the reference to comedians, but that was it! It didn’t have a deeper meaning.
JS: Wow. I have to say, in my review that’s one of the few direct quotes I pulled out of the film.
FP: Oh wow, that’s so interesting. Because it might have been just a cute or funny line. Not cute, such a serious thing even then, but…
JS: Yeah, I think when I saw it I wanted to cry at that line. Or throw up or something.
FP: (laughing) Oh my gosh. So it’s different. And it’s interesting, the discussion. It does come up sometimes. Sometimes you feel it but nobody wants to bring it up. It’s interesting! I don’t know if this is something to share, I don’t know if I should say it…
JS: Say it, say it!
FP: It’s just that you go to film festivals, and they’re very liberal. You get mostly responses like we’re talking about. But the Jewish film festivals you get a lot more Trump supporters, ironically. And that was a surprise because it wasn’t until November. I’d only been in one Jewish film festival, in San Francisco, prior to that. And that’s such a liberal town, that wasn’t even a thing. But suddenly we were dealing with Trump supporters, so it was getting divided in the audience. But what I found was it didn’t make them like the film less, they just want to be part of the discussion. So you would see that the Trump supporters just left the audience and didn’t stay for the discussion. But again, I don’t know if we should draw that distinction because it might make people not want to watch it.
JS: I think what’s interesting is it says that some people can go to a film like this as long as they think of fascism as something that happened long ago and far away.
FP: Exactly. Exactly! They didn’t want to be there for the discussion that is comparing it to now. And I’m not being judgmental about it, I’m just saying you could always tell. You could tell the percentage of Trump supporters based on who left the theater. But I’m only speaking in terms of Jewish film festivals.
JS: Yeah, that is interesting!
FP: But I still think that they liked the film. You know when someone doesn’t like a film, because they leave. They walk out. It wasn’t that. But you know what happens in film festivals. They say, “Oh, stick around, this film has so much to talk about.” They sort of set the stage by saying “In these divided times, this gives us something to talk about.” So you just know who’s leaving because they don’t want to talk about that.
JS: “We like the divided times we’re living in!”
JS: Interesting. Wow. I think that’s fascinating. I’d love to interview someone who walked out and didn’t want to be in the discussion.
FP: (laughing) I wish I’d known you!
JS: In light of that, as this film gets more viewership and goes on to Independent Lens, are you hoping people will think about it in the context of our current political situation? Like, there are a couple ways this could go. One, that this is a real thing that could happen. Or two, that it’s important for us to maintain our senses of humor.
FP: Well absolutely, absolutely. We just had our theatrical premiere in Los Angeles, which is where Renee lives, and it was incredible to be onstage with her and have people ask us about this. And the most chilling answer she had was when someone asked her, “When do you think this started up again?” And she said, “It never stopped.” And it was a sold out room of 400 people, and you could hear the “aughhh…”
JS: I just got chills.
FP: Yes! It gives us something to think about. It keeps the fire burning for people who want to fight against this wave of hatred. Yes, absolutely.
JS: I know you said earlier people want a simple answer from you. Is this kind of humor okay, or is it not okay? And obviously it’s more complicated than that.
FP: Exactly. There are critics that are like, “She doesn’t answer the question.” Well, there’s absolutely no way to answer the question. I always like to tell the story that when my husband and I went – it must have been 15 years ago – to see Sarah Silverman perform Jesus Is Magic, which is the show they’re watching on YouTube, and we were in a dark room with a lot of people our age, and nobody’s watching us watch it, and it was hilarious!
And then suddenly, looking at Renee watching it, suddenly the same stuff did not feel funny to me. I felt sick to my stomach! So that’s it. That’s context, right? Who’s your audience? Renee is not the audience for that particular set of jokes. But I wanted that feeling of sometimes it’s okay, like you’re watching, it’s funny. And then you pull back and you see Renee’s watching it – “Oh…” And for a while, early cuts, I’d have friends watch it, and they’d be laughing. And she’d say “I don’t think that’s funny,” and then they’d get mad at me and say, “You have to take that out, I don’t want to be judged for laughing.” And it’s not that I want you to be judged for laughing, but I want you to remember what you’re laughing at. It’s okay to be an easy laugh when you’re in a dark room, and nobody’s watching you, and everybody in the room is laughing, but it’s not always like that it. It’s not. These jokes are layered jokes as well. They’re meant to have these different responses.
JS: There were moments where I was like, “Oh, well, Renee doesn’t really get the joke,” and then I felt like a terrible person for thinking that.
FP: (laughs) Well, Renee is turning 93. There’s a big distinction. The joke wasn’t for her. She’s not offended by the joke, right? The Lisa Lampanelli joke I think she was offended by. It’s different. It crossed a line. Whereas Sarah’s joke – it’s not her kind of humor. There’s a generation gap. There are probably two generation gaps.
JS: But you have her daughter there in that scene saying, “No, mom, this is what they mean,” or, “It is funny.” It’s great.
FP: Right! There’s the generation gap. And also Sarah Silverman’s jokes are very layered and double-meaning, and she’s making fun of Holocaust deniers, but it’s very subtle. It’s a different kind of humor. It’s not the same kind of humor of Mel Brooks’ generation. Or, frankly, her generation of comedians was Charlie Chaplin.
JS: One part that was really interesting to me was them talking about how The Producers now is not edgy in the way that it was when it first came out. And I wasn’t alive in the ‘60s when it came out, so I didn’t see it right then, so it hadn’t occurred to me that we’re never going to get the punch that it had back then. That was a revelation to me.
FP: Right, right!
JS: Were there other things like that where you were surprised at the way humor had been used and the impact that it had?
FP: The Producers is one of my favorite movies. I didn’t see it when it came out. I was born in the ‘60s, but I didn’t see it till a time when you saw more of that sort of humor. I didn’t see it when it was so shocking, either. I was a person who already knew all that stuff before I decided to make the film.
[pullquote align=left] “I don’t have a Holocaust joke, but I do have a Nazi joke.”
[/pullquote]In terms of surprise, I was surprised when I found this out – which I think was before the interview – that Mel Brooks made this distinction between Holocaust jokes and Nazi jokes. That was a surprise. In fact, because on such a serious subject I didn’t want the comedians to hold back being funny, I started every single one of my interviews with, “Do you have a Holocaust joke?” to break the ice. And I’d get, “I don’t have a Holocaust joke, but I do have a Nazi joke.” And then they’d tell me a joke. And after the fourth or fifth interview, I was like, “Oh my god. There’s a distinction here.” It didn’t even hit me on the first and second one. And I thought, “Wow, that’s so strange.” And so then I eventually started saying, “I used to start my interviews with, ‘Do you have a Holocaust joke?’ but then people would say, ‘I don’t have a Holocaust joke, I have a Nazi joke.’ Which do you have?” So I sort of worked that in.
And then of course most comedians do make that distinction. Although Gilbert Gottfried does not. Gilbert Gottfried draws no lines, no nothing. But when I told him that, he thought that was really funny. “Yeah, like the Nazis had nothing to do with the Holocaust!” (laughs)
JS: That’s funny! I’m kind of jealous you got to hang out with all these amazing comedians. It must have been awesome.
FP: I know! I would be jealous, too, if it weren’t me. It was awesome. It was really incredible. And a few that live in New York I’ve gotten to be friendly with. So that’s been really nice. Only the ones that are big stars are harder to have daily contact with. Like Mel. Or Sarah.
JS: You’re on a first name basis! Good old Mel…
JS: But was it like you would expect? Just constantly cracking you up?
FP: Yes, but you’re interviewing them, and you can’t laugh! So the whole crew is laughing, and…silence. The comedians would always make fun of that. But so funny. Yes, just laughing all the time. And of course Mel Brooks. It was a life-changing experience to interview him, and he was just incredible – and at the same time reminds you of your Jewish uncle! Or grandfather. Same with Carl Reiner. But Mel, at the end of the interview, he took my face in his hands and kissed me on the cheek three times, and he said, “Good job, Pearlstein!” And I was like, “I’m gonna retire now.” (laughs)
JS: Yeah, you can just die happy then. Although he in the movie had several serious moments where he was saying, “No, I guess I don’t think that’s funny,” or “I don’t think that’s funny.” And I was like, “Wow, Mel Brooks!”
FP: I know, that’s what I meant! That’s the big surprise in the film, that somebody who is known for going there, that’s been daring his whole life, that he has a line he doesn’t cross.
The Last Laugh is available is screening on PBS and now available streaming for free on Independent Lens.