AR-Online logo 

 Posted Wednesday, March 3, 1999

Quick navigation


London March 28, 1999



Holocaust comedy hit by backlash

by Christopher Goodwin


THE backlash against the Italian who dared make an Oscar-winning film that found humour in the Holocaust has begun. Even Steven Spielberg is said to be privately appalled by Roberto Benigni's romantic comedy Life is Beautiful.

At the Academy Awards last week there should have been no more delightful moment than watching Benigni clambering over the seats in the auditorium to collect one of the three Oscars he won for his film. But the uncomfortable juxtaposition of his slapstick humour and his accumulation of awards for a comedy with the backdrop of the murder of 6m Jews has sickened many people.

Benigni's canonisation in Hollywood has revived a simmering row about whether, as the ageing generation of survivors is dying out, the Holocaust is now becoming trivialised, and even commercialised, in a trend known in America as Holokitsch.

At the Florida Holocaust Museum in St Petersburg the gift shop offers a model of one of the museum's exhibits, a box-car used to ship Jews to the concentration camps, for $39.95. For a $5,000 donation, you can buy a railway spike from the Treblinka concentration camp. Benigni's film is said to be an unwitting part of the same blight.

One of the people Benigni clambered past on his way to the stage was Spielberg, the director of the Oscar-winning Holocaust film Schindler's List. It was said that Spielberg was so upset when he saw Benigni's film that he wanted to walk out of the cinema and had to be restrained by his wife, Kate Capshaw, who told him that his exit would be noticed.

Although it has been reported in America and Italy that Spielberg was appalled by Benigni's film, his only public comment was that he felt "uncomfortable" talking about it, adding: "I'm happy when anyone makes a movie that says the Holocaust happened."

Benigni insists that when they had lunch together just before the Oscars, Spielberg told him: "I really like - love - your movie a lot", a comment Spielberg has not seen fit to repeat publicly.

Whatever Spielberg may feel, others are now breaking the ranks of those charmed by Benigni's humour. David Denby, film critic of The New Yorker, took the almost unprecedented step of running a second review of Life is Beautiful just before the Oscars. What most troubled him was how positively people have reacted to the film - which has become America's highest-grossing foreign language film, taking $130m at the box office.

In the film Benigni plays an assimilated Jew who is deported to a death camp with his wife and five-year-old son. He shields his son from the guards by pretending their predicament is a big game they can win if they play by the rules.

"The enormous worldwide success of Life is Beautiful suggests that the audience is exhausted by the Holocaust," said Denby. "The film is a benign form of Holocaust denial."

Benigni, who spent years devising the film, claims there is a difference between laughing at the concentration camps and laughing in them. Others, who have dedicated their lives to ensuring the Holocaust is not forgotten, agree.

Shimon Samuels, European director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, commented: "I think that humour is not only an arm of the defenceless. Humour is also an act of resistance. To have kept any state of humour in the concentration camps was in itself an act of resistance. There are such cases.

"Wiesenthal is a man who treats the realities of life in that period with a certain very refreshing humour. It is not a cruel black humour. He says: 'Justice yes, but life must go on'. We in the Wiesenthal Centre want to see humour very much as part of the armour, combating prejudice."

Samuels, who is not a camp survivor, said he personally had "very mixed feelings" about the film. "On the one hand the story is unrealistic. We all know that is so. As an allegory, it is a beautifully made film. As an organisation we have absolutely no objection in backing it and saying it is another means of presenting a different dimension to the Holocaust.

"Anyone who feels good after coming out of a film that shows murder, a child trying to make a euphemism for evil, has not captured its true meaning. It should be taken at face value for what it is - a poetic rendition, trying to show through the eyes of a child what is unexplainable."

Mick Zwireck, 72, who spent four years in Nazi camps including Buchenwald [see note below], said: "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."

Additional reporting: Jack Grimston

[One of our Website visitors points out March 29, 1999 that this would have made Zwireck aged at most 14 if and when he entered Buchenwald camp in 1941].
The above news item is reproduced without editing other than typographical
 Register your name and address to go on the Mailing List to receive

© Focal Point 1999 e-mail:  write to David Irving