Who has the last laugh? The Jewish Film Festival discusses Holocaust humour

The Last Laugh, starring Mel Brooks

The Last Laugh, starring Mel Brooks - Credit: Archant

The UK Jewish Film Festival returns for it’s 20th year, with screenings all over north west London


Mountain - Credit: Archant

Over its 20 years of existence, the UK Jewish Film Festival has grown to become quite a sprawl. This year there are 80 films from 20 countries, including Israel, France, Argentina, Hungary and Ethiopia, while the festival itself has events taking place all across the country - Glasgow, Manchester and Leeds – and from Borehamwood to Wimbledon in the capital.

In the middle of it all though there are plenty of screenings to catch locally at the Odeon Swiss Cottage, JW3, The Phoenix in East Finchley and the Hampstead Everyman.

The Last Laugh starts with Mel Brooks doing a Hitler impression with a black comb as the moustache. He then adjusts the comb to do Stalin before going back to Hitler. “This is the guy that made me money, so I keep doing him.”

Mel Brooks doing Hitler is something that is always welcome: because it’s usually funny and always hopeful. His film The Producers is, to some extent, the centre point of this exploration of humour and the Holocaust. Its Springtime For Hitler musical routine is generally marked down as the moment when Nazi jokes became mainstream.

The thesis of Ferne Pearlstein’s documentary is that there was lots of laughter and gallows humour in the camps, and that Jewish laughter and life represent their ultimate triumph over Hitler.

The Small World of Sammy Lee

The Small World of Sammy Lee - Credit: Archant

Some survivors refuse to go along with this idea, indeed they seem unable to take joy from life. “I don’t live in the shadow, but the shadow is following me all my life,” one of them says.

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Others are more receptive. Renee Firestone recalls early on the absurdity of a medical inspection by Dr Mengele in which he recommended having her tonsils removed if she survived the war.

Firestone becomes the central figure to hang the film on, constantly going back to her to see if the survivor finds this humour funny or not. Around her, the film has gathered together an impressive collection of comics, writers and directors– including Rob Reiner, Sara Silverman, Gilbert Gottlieb, Larry Charles, Harry Shearer – to discuss humour about the Holocaust. It’s a rambling exploration and at times it wanders off topic to become a general exploration of what is “good taste” and how soon is “too soon.”

As is often the case with documentaries about humour it is doubtful whether much depth is explored but there are a lot of really funny clips and I laughed a lot. Did we learn much today? Not really but we had a good time and that’s what really matters ultimately. The Last Laugh screens at the Phoenix on November 8th at 6.30 with a panel discussion.

Rather less fun is to be had with Mountain. Zvia (Shani Klein) is an Orthodox Jewish woman who lives in a house on the Mount of Olives cemetery in Jerusalem, with her husband and four children.


Weiner - Credit: Archant

The husband, Reuven, seems to be doing very well in the world of Orthodox academia and is showing steadily less interest in his wife. The chances of the family advancing beyond the four children seem slim. Increasingly she becomes intrigued with the activities of the sex workers plying their trade there at night.

Even I know that the Mount of Olives is a prestigious cemetery (I remember the fuss when Robert Maxwell was buried there) so it is a bit of a shock that the place is crumbling in places and that it is a work place for pimps and prostitutes, or that somebody can make a film on that location.

Yaelle Kayan’s film is brief, terse and uncommunicative, but with a gently compelling sense of place and character. In contrast, Shani Klein has a lovely expressive face which keeps us from being alienated by the film’s inexpressive tone.

Mountain screens at the Phoenix on November 9th at 9.00 pm and at JW3 on 19th at 8.45.

This being US election year there are a number of reissued movies connected to the subject - Heartburn, Primary Colours and All The President’s Men – but the most intriguing revival is The Small World of Sammy Lee, a 1963 drama set in the seedy world of Soho strip clubs. Anthony Newley, a magnificent amalgam of Bruce Forsyth and Norman Wisdom (the smarmy chumminess of the former; the walk and nervous energy of the later) is compelling as a strip show compere trying to raise £300 in five hours to pay off a bookie and avoid a beating. The Small World of Sammy Lee is on at the small screen at JW3 on November 15th at 6.30

Alone in Berlin

Alone in Berlin - Credit: Archant

The UK Jewish Film Festival runs from November 5 to 20, with screenings in Odeon Swiss Cottage, JW3, The Phoenix in Finchley and Hampstead Everyman.

A full line up of films is available at ukjewishfilm.org and includes Alone in Berlin starring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson in Swiss Cottage, Weiner at JW3, Forever Pure at Hampstead Everyman and A Queer Country at The Phoenix.