"Kush mir in tokhes!": humor and Hollywood in Holocaust films of the 1990s
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This project examines the rhetorical strategies at play in four films which intertwine humor in a Holocaust narrative. I argue that humor can be a creative and powerful tool that speaks when straightforward language is impossible. I also consider critically the potential for humor to be offensive or belittling to a tragedy whose ramifications are far from past. Humor subverts expectations. Audience members expecting a Holocaust film prepare themselves to cry, shriek, or groan. Humor, then, functions as a disjuncture, a break from the comfort of “knowing” what to expect from a “Holocaust film.” I explore the ways that humor can draw the Holocaust out of the realm of cliché, to confront it from new and uncomfortable angles, to render its horrors vital once again. Peter Kassovitz’s Jakob the Liar models the dangers of creating a fictional, comedic Holocaust film based on the Hollywood epic style seen in films like Schindler's viii List. Kassovitz’s film rewrites Jurek Becker’s darkly comic novel, turning Robin Williams’s Jakob into a clownish hero-figure who keeps the ghetto alive with hope. The comic depictions in Life Is Beautiful have been received by some scholars as an affront to historical, ethical, and aesthetic sensibilities. I argue that the first half of the film effectively uses comedy to expose the absurdity of fascism. In the concentration camp scenes, however, Life is Beautiful embraces the Schindler’s List paradigms of the Hollywood epic, which undoes the effective and irreverent humor of the early scenes. My final two chapters analyze Genghis Cohn and Mendel, films created outside of Hollywood which flout the many Hollywood conventions I’ve explored in the previous two chapters. While Jakob the Liar and Life is Beautiful are set within the sites of atrocity themselves and use humor as a method of survival or sustained hope, Genghis Cohn and Mendel move beyond the Holocaust to explore the aftermath and the recovery in the decades that follow. Genghis Cohn and Mendel use humor to access and create memory, and to develop a history—personal and collective—of the Holocaust and its victims after the fact.