Friday, 25 March 2011

Chris Port Blog #150. Humour in the Holocaust: Does Laughter Relieve Our Suffering or Diminish Our Objections to the Suffering of Others? (5 of 7)

© Chris Port, Central School of Speech and Drama, 1999.


CHAPTER 5: Humour in the Holocaust? (A case study on Roberto Benigni's film Life is Beautiful, Melampo Cinematografica, Italy 1997; a comparative case study on Laughter! [Auschwitz], Barnes, 1996). 

(Note: This dissertation has been posted in seven instalments)

List of contents

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  • What is laughter?
  • What is comedy?
  • What is humour?
  • Aesthetic judgments
  • Simple Objectivism (Recognizing the rules of composition).
  • Simple Subjectivism (I know what I like but do I need to know why?).
  • Simple Relativism (Is one judgment as good or as bad as another?).
  • Sophisticated Objectivism (All in the imagination?).
  • Sophisticated Subjectivism (Colours and aesthetics - 'seeing red'?).
  • Pragmatic Relativism ('Local' truths).

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • What is the superiority theory of laughter?
  • What is the incongruity theory of laughter?
  • What is the psychic release theory of laughter?

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • Where in the body is the impulse to laugh located?
  • Is there a 'laughter centre' in the human brain?
  • Is laughter voluntary or involuntary?
  • What philosophical models exist to explain the mind/body axis?

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


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  • Life is Beautiful (Melampo Cinematografica, Italy 1997) - A case study.
  • Laughter! [Auschwitz] (Barnes, 1996) - A comparative case study.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • What is determinism?

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CHAPTER 5: Humour in the Holocaust? (A case study on Roberto Benigni's film Life is Beautiful, Melampo Cinematografica, Italy 1997; a comparative case study on Laughter! [Auschwitz], Barnes, 1996).

In Chapter 4 - The Lord of Misrule we moved the focus of our study away from claims of comedy's subversive potential towards its possible connivance with suffering in events such as the Nazi Holocaust. In this chapter we will develop our earlier line of thought with reference to particular dramatic comic texts. Our main case study will be the recently released comic fantasy film Life is Beautiful (Melampo Cinematografica, Italy 1997) although we shall also make a comparative case study with Laughter! [Auschwitz] (Barnes,1996).

Life is Beautiful (Melampo Cinematografica, Italy 1997) - A case study.

Life is Beautiful (1997) takes, as its subject matter, a Jewish father's attempt to protect his young son from the horrors of reality in a Nazi extermination camp. By turning the rules of their predicament into a game of fantasy, the young innocent is protected from the grotesque reality of genocide and the inversion of all normal rules of morality.

Although based on a lie (in which the hero and the audience share a complicity) there is still a sense that, if the comic rules are followed, the comic characters might be enabled to 'win the game'. They do not need to act in order to change their persecution (in reality, the rules of the Nazi extermination camps were such that their victims were literally and metaphysically stripped of all power to act); instead, they can change their perception of reality, changing the rules into a new language game, their game.

All this is reminiscent of Bahktin and his theories of carnival and heteroglossia (cf. Hirschop, 1989). Although the inversion of the rules is a fantasy it carries within it the possibility of change. Reality can be changed by a sheer act of will. Schopenhauer is (appropriately) invoked by the hero's friend at the beginning of the film as the thinker who held that one can change reality simply by the force of will.

The film balances precariously between comedy and tragedy. The comic hero, Guido, does not violate any rules of our society (although he violates Nazi rules of eugenics by simply being Jewish) and yet his death is tragic. Guido is comic in that he inverts and diminishes the rules of tragedy and yet there is no happy reconciliation for him at the end.

As the critic Colin MacCabe notes:

'Comedy is the genre that celebrates the social. Traditionally, comedies end with a marriage [Life is Beautiful starts with a marriage], confirming the power of society to reproduce itself. Tragedy is the domain of the individual, traditionally ending with the death of the hero [Life is Beautiful ends with the death of its hero] who can't conform to the demands of the community.' (MacCabe, 1999, p.46).

It is not our community that demands the hero's punishment for violating Nazi rules of eugenics and thus it is the rules which are wrong (rather than the hero's existential violation of them). Also, the rule is not reinstated at the end as, after the hero's death, the camp is liberated by the U.S. army and the hero's son sees his promised prize (a life-sized tank).

Life is Beautiful thus defies the conventions of both comedy and tragedy and possibly falls into an indistinct and interstitial category of tragicomedy.

How are we to define tragicomedy? Styan (1968) claims that the term is incoherent as it 'invites us to measure a play by two widely different yardsticks simultaneously, regardless of their possible irrelevance.' (Styan, 1968, Bernard Dukore (cited in Dutton, 1986) appears to reconcile these different criteria of the tragic and the comic by shifting their simultaneity in a narrative shift from one to the other (from comedy to tragedy):

'The movement of a funny play to a point where it is no longer funny - where the comic nature of its characteristics ceases to be comic, where the audience stops laughing, where the nonfunny dominates - this movement constitutes the progress, conclusion and effect of... distinctive tragicomedies'. (Dukore cited in Dutton, 1986).

If we accept this British definition of tragicomedy then the narrative structure of Life is Beautiful follows this movement from comedy to tragedy and thus qualifies as a tragicomedy [albeit in a more sentimental manner than the ruthless British tradition with playwrights such as Beckett, Pinter and Stoppard].

Criticism of Life is Beautiful seems to fall into two general camps of thought. Positive criticism views the film as a redemptive comedy (cf. Curtis, 1999, p.24) which also makes the Holocaust the object of renewed attentiveness by defamiliarising it through the comic techniques of inversion and diminution. Tome Shone (1999) observes that:

'... Benigni's conceit joins an equally worthwhile tradition which has sought to turn the Holocaust on its head; when evil is at its blackest pitch, perhaps the only way to see it is in reversed negative.' (Shone, 1997, p.7).

Negative criticism of the film turns on two points: that comic diminution may also diminish the suffering of Holocaust victims (cf. Curtis, 1999, p.24) and that its popularity is symptomatic of a fatigue with more serious and realistic treatments such as Schindler's List. The American film critic David Denby (cited in Goodwin, 1999) observes that the whimsicality and the very popularity of Life is Beautiful suggests that audiences are exhausted by the subject and that the film is 'a form of Holocaust denial.' (Denby cited in Goodwin, 1999, p.26). (Universal, 1993).

The Simon Weisenthal Centre (a Jewish organisation dedicated to ensuring that the Holocaust is never forgotten) has given a cautious approval to the film (cited in Goodwin, 1999) on the grounds that it is an allegory which presents the Holocaust in a different dimension. However, the inevitable diminution of suffering involved in a comic treatment, even an allegorical one, can produce a different response in a victim from that of an audience. Goodwin (1999) cites the hurt response of one concentration camp survivor:

"To my mind, it is very hurtful. When people see comedy made of tragedy, they might think it wasn't so bad. I don't think people realise, you only had to look up or smile too much and they would have just executed you, or beat you to death." (cited in Goodwin, 1999, p.26).

Given our knowledge of the suffering of people who survived the Nazi extermination camps, there is an understandable conscience-stricken reluctance to challenge such personal viewpoints on the grounds of a film's artistic freedom and comic traditions, and yet our treatment obliges us to cite such justifications.

A strong defence of Life is Beautiful as an artistic and human response to suffering is put forward by Quentin Curtis (1999). He acknowledges that Life is Beautiful does not present the Holocaust accurately, 'presenting more of a holiday camp than a concentration camp' (Curtis, 1999, p.24). However, he refuses to accept that any film about the Holocaust is immoral unless it shows the destruction of human values in the death camps. He argues that the logical conclusion of such an argument would be that 'art is impossible after the Holocaust, an assertion that is both untrue and inhuman.' (Goodwin, 1999, p.24).

Goodwin's argument has much to commend it. If comedy is to have any redemptive power then surely it must be able to raise our spirits from such an abyss of despair? However, the real underlying objection to Life is Beautiful is not that it attempts to relieve our suffering but that it does so on the premise of a lie (and, in doing so, diminishes the suffering of others).

Hoberman (1999) observes that 'If Life is Beautiful is a fable, its moral must be that lying makes life bearable.' (Hoberman, 1999, p.22). He also observes that, while the film shows an attempt to protect the innocence of a child, it also tries to protect the innocence of the spectator by gently detouring around the real-life horrors of the camp. The question we now ask is should the spectator's innocence be protected? Other playwrights would argue not and so we now turn to the work of Peter Barnes (1996) for a comparative case study.

Laughter! [Auschwitz] (Barnes, 1996) - A comparative case study.

In Laughter! (1996) Barnes directly addresses the case of Auschwitz. His play is set in an office where German civil servants converse in bureaucratic banter relieved only by cynical jokes which help them bear, but not change, their lot. In fact, their bureaucratic jargon relates to specifications for the concrete chimneys at Auschwitz. Their terminology also enables the characters to obscure their complicity in genocide. By luring us into laughter, Barnes also implicates the audience in the bureaucrats' self-delusion until (ironically) a humourless and devoted Nazi forces the characters (and the audience) to confront the reality of Auschwitz in unflinching and unfunny terms. The play ends with two stand-up Jewish comedians telling jokes as they are gassed. Comedy has not revealed the truth and the truth is not funny.

In the Prologue to Laughter! A character named Author argues that:

'Comedy itself is the enemy. Laughter... cures nothing, except our consciences and so ends by making the nightmare worse. A sense of humour's no remedy for evil.' (Barnes, 1996, p.343).

Barnes (cited in Dukore, 1981) is dismissive of comedy's revolutionary potential, even that of satire. Although he recognises the analgesic quality of laughter he regards this as inimical to improvement, advocating anger and hatred as more effective emotions for the removal of the causes of suffering (rather than just their effects). As Barnes puts it:

'... laughter alleviates suffering and makes us bear our miserable lot with equanimity and a little more grace than we would if we didn't laugh. There is a strong argument that laughter, far from alleviating only increases the suffering, in the sense that if we laugh, then we don't change the miseries and the injustices.' (Barnes cited in Dukore, 1981, p.33).

From Barnes' (1996) perspective, Life is Beautiful (1997) would be inimical to righteous anger that the Holocaust was allowed to happen. Although some might consider that the gap of time since the Holocaust should broaden our perspective to allow more pacific emotions, it might behove us to again look eastwards to recent allegations of rape camps and ethnic massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo. Would Life is Beautiful work as a redemptive comedy if transposed there, and for what kind of audience with what sense of humour?

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