((JR)) — Ferne Pearlstein re-watched “Life is Beautiful,” Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning Holocaust film, around 2015. She was working on her documentary “The Last Laugh,” which focused on the possibilities — and limits — of Holocaust humor.
Pearlstein was struck not by how subversive Benigni’s film felt, but how tame it seemed. In the 2000s, she argued in a recent interview, Holocaust humor had become so much more ubiquitous, if not always accepted. Joan Rivers had made a joke about Nazi gas chambers on national TV. The blockbuster “The Hangover” — directed and produced by Jewish filmmaker Todd Phillips — casually tossed in a Holocaust joke. The topic has been a longstanding part of Sarah Silverman’s standup routine.
But when “Life is Beautiful” hit U.S. theaters 25 years ago last month, it rocked Hollywood and beyond by attempting to infuse humor into the setting of a concentration camp.
“I, too, remember watching it when it came out, and being amazed that anybody would have taken the time to have represented part of our story that way,” said Rich Brownstein, the author of a book about hundreds of Holocaust-themed films.
Benigni, by then a well-known Italian comedian, starred in the movie as Guido Orefice, a charming Italian-Jewish drifter who repeatedly uses his wit to get out of bad situations. In the opening days of World War II, he courts a non-Jewish woman who was set to marry a local Fascist commander, eventually marrying her and having a son.
By 1944, once the Nazis occupy Italy, Guido and his young son are taken away to an unnamed concentration camp. For the rest of the film, set in the camp, Guido attempts to shield the truth of their predicament from his son — by pretending their entire imprisonment is a game. Guido suffers under the torture of forced labor, but he finds the strength after a day’s work to keep the charade up for his son, to keep him from drifting into despair.
The film — all in Italian — was a surprise hit, and its awards season campaign was nearly as memorable as the film itself. Throughout the campaign, Benigni charmed American audiences with wild interviews and awards acceptance speeches in which he climbed upon theater seats and spoke in broken but enthusiastic English. At the Oscars in 1999, his movie won three awards, including for best foreign language film and best actor.
“This is a terrible mistake because I used up all my English,” Benigni said from the Oscar stage after winning best actor, in his second speech of the night. “I am not able to express all my gratitude, because now, my body is in tumult because it is a colossal moment of joy so everything is really in a way that I cannot express. I would like to be Jupiter! And kidnap everybody and lie down in the firmament making love to everybody, because I don’t know how to express.”
Audiences loved the film too, as it became the highest-grossing foreign language film in U.S. history at the time (although “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” surpassed it two years later).
Some critics loved “Life is Beautiful,” seeing the film as funny, inspirational and original.
“The film finds the right notes to negotiate its delicate subject matter. And Benigni isn’t really making comedy out of the Holocaust, anyway,” Roger Ebert wrote. “He is showing how Guido uses the only gift at his command to protect his son. If he had a gun, he would shoot at the Fascists. If he had an army, he would destroy them. He is a clown, and comedy is his weapon.”
But many others, from Jewish comedians to academics, were not as kind. Israeli author Kobi Niv wrote an entire book, in 2000, called “Life is Beautiful, But Not for Jews: Another View of the Film by Benigni,” which was critical of the film.
“Oh, Benigni was clearly setting himself up for trouble and he knew it,” Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf, also an author of a book on the Holocaust in cinema, said at the time.
Many of the comedians Pearlstein interviewed for her film — who included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Gilbert Gottfried and Judy Gold — took issue with the fantastical feel of Benigni’s movie. Guido’s son is able to avoid the Nazis by hiding in the camp’s bunker, something that would not have been possible, Pearlstein noted.
But she added that the bold choice to set much of the film in a camp was a larger trigger point.
“It is sort of verboten to a lot of people to have the camps a part of it, the gas chambers,” she said. “As soon as you evoke those images, it becomes verboten for people, even if the joke was not about the victims.”
Brooks might have been expected to be a fan of “Life is Beautiful,” as someone who had shocked audiences in the late 1960s with “The Producers” — which featured a Broadway musical starring Adolf Hitler as a major plot point. He also mined the Spanish Inquisition for laughs in “History of the World, Part I.” But he hated “Life is Beautiful,” calling it “a crazy film that even attempted to find comedy in a concentration camp.”
“It showed the barracks in which Jews were kept like cattle, and it made jokes about it,” the World War II veteran told German newspaper Der Spiegel in 2006. “The philosophy of the film is: people can get over anything. No, they can’t. They can’t get over a concentration camp.”
Brooks also took issue with the fact that Benigni was not Jewish. “Tell me, Roberto, are you nuts?” he said in the Spiegel interview. “You didn’t lose any relatives in the Holocaust, you’re not even Jewish. You really don’t understand what it’s all about.”
Benigni’s Catholic father reportedly spent two years as a prisoner in the Bergen-Belsen camp, however, and the filmmaker used his recollections of that time in crafting the story. He also consulted with Italian Jewish groups and used Italian Auschwitz survivor Rubino Romeo Salmonì’s memoir “In the End, I Beat Hitler” as further inspiration. Salmonì often used black humor in describing his Holocaust experiences.
Benigni said Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” one of the earliest satires of Hitler, was another influence.
“This is an homage to the master, because I love this movie, and, of course, making a movie — a comedy about [a] concentration camp, I watched this movie a lot of time,” Benigni said at the time.
Pearlstein said that “intent” and “execution” of Holocaust humor are also hugely important. Brooks, she said, “makes a complete distinction between humor about the Nazis versus humor in the camps.” Brownstein agrees.
“There are great Holocaust films made by gentiles, including ‘Cabaret,’ ‘Inglourious Basterds,’ ‘Au revoir les enfants’… and there are horrible Holocaust films made by Jews, including ‘Jojo Rabbit,’” he said. “To make a film of any kind, successfully, you have to have your kishkes in it.”
“Jojo Rabbit,” Taika Waititi’s comedy-drama about a Nazi-era German boy who learns lessons about hate as he becomes disillusioned with the Hitler Youth he once admired, faced a similar gantlet of criticism when it debuted in 2019. Some found the main Jewish character to be hollow, or Waititi’s performance as Hitler — as imagined by the child protagonist — as too light. But the film also won Waititi — a New Zealander who is Māori and Jewish — critical acclaim, and he has since become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand directors.
Pearlstein thinks Holocaust humor will never fully disappear, even in the aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre, which was among the worst attacks against Jews since World War II.
“There might be a dip for a little time. Think about 9/11 — here was a dip, and then people need it; it’s a survival mechanism,” she said. “And that is why you always hear about Jewish people and using humor, because they have used it to survive through the worst of times.”