The Holocaust is no laughing matter. Or is it?
“The Last Laugh,” a documentary directed by Ferne Pearlstein, and opening in New York on Friday and Los Angeles on March 17, seeks to find out, starting with the premise that the Holocaust is a subject that’s verboten for comedy.
Prisoners of Nazi concentration camps used humor as means of survival and resistance. Then there’s Mel Brooks’ film “The Producers” about a washed up-theater producer who puts on a show called “Springtime for Hitler.”
Renee Firestone, a 92-year-old Auschwitz survivor, who is featured in the film, makes her position clear. “It’s OK to make fun of the Nazis, but not about the killing. Making fun of the Nazis is OK with me.”
Firestone’s experiences are intertwined in “Laugh” with interviews with Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Rob and Carl Reiner, Susie Essman, Judy Gold, Harry Shearer and Gilbert Gottfried. There’s excerpts from Jerry Lewis’ newly discovered Holocaust comedy, “The Day the Clown Cried,” which was never released. Authors Etgar Keret and Shalom Auslander, and Anti-Defamation League director emeritus Abraham Foxman weigh in on the question of Holocaust: funny or unfunny.
Firestone is no stranger to the big screen. She was featured as one of five survivors in Steven Spielberg’s 1998 documentary, “The Last Days.”
“I made many others films,” Firestone said. “Then, this couple from New York called and asked if I thought you can make fun of the Holocaust and make jokes about the Holocaust. They invited comedians to be in the movie and have shown it in Berlin and Israel.”
Firestone in 1948 went to Los Angeles after the war. “I found out I had an aunt here, my father’s sister,” she said. “I had this idea that I wanted to be a designer, but I knew nothing about the garment industry. I met Rudi Gernreich. He told me he was a dancer and that he had all these ideas for designs. I said, ‘Let’s join forces and see what we can do.’”
Gernreich’s avant garde fashion in the late Fifties was grabbing headlines. “In 1960, I decided it was enough,” Firestone said. “Rudi got all the publicity and nobody knew I existed. I went out on my own, and surprisingly, I was very successful.”
Firestone’s designs are finally getting their due in an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Firestone said her styles found their way to the museum through a remarkable series of events.
Rita Lawrence, a friend and the owner of Architectural Pottery, picked out a new wardrobe every season at Firestone’s factory. “For some reason, it’s almost unbelievable, her son kept all of her clothes,” Firestone said. “He found a letter his mother wrote to LACMA, saying that they should display my designs. Her son sent the letter to the museum and they agreed to an exhibit. They’ll have nine of my garments until the end of the year.”
Firestone began speaking to schools and organizations about the Holocaust in 1977. “The demand was so great, it was impossible for me to do that and my fashion collection,” she said. “I left my business and I spoke.
“It’s scary what’s going on politically,” Firestone said. “The public voted for [Donald Trump]. I hope people will wake up. When I speak to children in schools, I tell them that they’re the ones who have to save this world.”