Cinema has offered numerous satirical takes on history's darkest chapter, often controversial and sometimes considered in questionable taste. Film scholar Eddy Von Mueller joins AJFF In Conversation podcast hosts Sara and Brad as they grapple with the taboo topic of Holocaust humor, discussing Chaplin's The Great Dictator and Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit, among other films.
Below are some of the films and references from this episode.
Our special guest, Dr. Eddy Von Mueller, is a writer, filmmaker, film historian, and formerly a professor of film studies at Emory University.
Films mentioned in the episode include:
The Last Laugh (2017) is an all-time great documentary that showed at AJFF a few years ago. It has a who's who of Jewish comedians, all chewing on the question of what is appropriate for humor when it comes to the Holocaust and other taboo topics. Get it digitally via Amazon or buy it on DVD. It's also available for free on Kanopy, if you have access to that service.
The Great Dictator (1940) is Charlie Chaplin's first true sound film, with the classic icon having written, directed, produced, and even scored the picture. You can stream it on The Criterion Channel or Kanopy, and it's also available digitally on Amazon. Or snag the Criterion Blu-ray, which comes with some incredible extra content.
Jojo Rabbit (2019), like Chaplin's 1940 film, has the director portraying Hitler (or in Chaplin's case, a Hitler-esque parody). In the case of Taika Waititi, Hitler is the ridiculous imaginary friend of a German boy whose mother is hiding a Jew in a secret closet. Rent or purchase the film from just about anywhere, including Amazon, but we recommend the Blu-ray. It includes a half-hour featurette on the making of the film and an audio commentary by the director.
The Producers (1967) was the directorial debut of Mel Brooks, and was a bit of sensation when it came out, asking the audience to laugh at Nazis just a couple decades removed from World War II. Time has worn away some of its edginess, but the film remains as good as it ever was. Buy it digitally on AppleTV or from Amazon, better yet, snag the Collector's Edition Blu-ray for your, umm... collection.
The Producers (2005) is the remake of the 1967 classic, with Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, and Uma Thurman taking over the leading roles. It's available online from all the major platforms, or you can buy the Blu-ray.
Life is Beautiful (1997) won Roberto Benigni two Oscars (Best Actor and Best Foreign Language Film) as well as the Grand Prix at the '98 Cannes Film Festival. It also won all of us the unforgetable memory of Benigni walking over Steven Spielberg at the Academy Awards. You can see the film, which to be honest, you'll either love or hate, online or on Blu-ray.
The Day the Clown Cried (1972) is not a film you will ever be seeing, unless you make a trip to the Library of Congress in four years. Jerry Lewis, who made the ill fated film, donated an unfinished copy with the stipulation it never be screened before July of 2024. Before Benigni won accolades for Life is Beautiful, Lewis earned nothing but headaches for trying to depict humor and clown hijinks in the concentration camps. The story behind the film, and the reactions it engendered without being seen by almost anyone, is probably more compelling than the movie would've been.
Triumph of the Will (1935) by Leni Riefenstahl is arguably one of the great documentaries ever made and certainly one of the best pieces of propaganda. Unfortunately, it was glorifying the Nazis, so its legacy is a little... complicated. Still, you can watch it everywhere from Amazon to AppleTV, and it remains incredibly influential, going all the way back to Charlie Chaplin. His aforementioned The Great Dictator was, in part, inspired by Riefenstahl's film.
Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips (1944) is a controversial Merry Melodies cartoon released by Warner Bros. during World War II, and is just one notable example of racist stereotypes of the Japanese peddled in children's cartoons during wartime. You can read all about the short and its attendant controversy, though good luck finding a copy to watch for yourself. It was pulled from home video distribution in the early 1990s amidst protests.
Other films mentioned include:
Look Who’s Back (2015), available on Netflix.
Schindler’s List (1993), available basically everywhere.
Selma (2015), which you really must watch if you haven't already.
The Death of Stalin (2018), one of the better fascist satires of the past couple decades.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), which isn't really about politics, fascism, or the Holocaust, but remains a classic nonetheless.
The music for our episode is provided by the incomparable Joe Alterman. Specifically, our into and outro music is "Pure Imagination" off his album, "Give Me the Simple Life", and our interlude music is "Over the Rainbow" from "More Cornbread (Live)". Check him out on Spofity or wherever you get your music.
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