Camp Comedy

Film still for Camp Comedy

Why is the holocaust now a fit subject for comedy when it has never been successfully rendered as tragedy by the likes of Schindler's List? Slavoj Zizek unpicks the protective fantasies surrounding the 'ultimate' evil

The success of the Oscar-winning Life Is Beautiful has given rise to a new subgenre: the holocaust comedy. Roberto Benigni's film was followed by Jakob the Liar (1999), a remake of a GDR classic about the owner of a ghetto shop (Robin Williams) who pretends to have a radio receiver on which he hears uplifting news of imminent German defeat, and now Train of Life/Train de vie, the story of a small Jewish community who organise a fake transport train on which they escape to freedom. Significantly, all three films are centred on a lie that allows the threatened Jews to survive their ordeal.

The key to this trend is provided by the obvious failure of the holocaust tragedy. Though many critics praised it as the strongest part of Schindler's List (1993), there's a scene that condenses all that's false in Steven Spielberg's film, namely the moment where the concentration-camp commander confronts one of his prisoners, a beautiful Jewish girl. While she attracts him sexually, he finds her unacceptable as a love object because of her Jewishness; in the battle between erotic attraction and racist hatred, racism wins the day and he casts her off. We listen to his long quasi-theatrical monologue while the terrified girl silently stares in front of her, immobilised by mortal fear. The tension, of course, arises from the radical incommensurability of the two subjective perspectives: what for him is a light-hearted flirtation with the idea of a brief sexual affair is for her a question of life or death. But what is so thoroughly false is the way the scene tries to render the 'mind of the Nazi' - here the split between attraction and repulsion - as his direct psychological self-experience: a deceptive 'humanisation' in that it is wrong to assume that Nazi executioners experienced the contradictions of their racist attitudes in the form of psychological doubt. The only way to have rendered the Nazi executioner's split attitude correctly would have been to stage the scene in a de-psychologised, mocking Brechtian manner, with the actor directly addressing the public: "I, the commander of the concentration camp, find this girl sexually attractive; I can do with my prisoners whatever I want, so I can rape her with impunity. However, I am also impregnated by the racist ideology which tells me that Jews are filthy and unworthy of my attention. So I do not know how to decide..."

The falsity of Schindler's List is thus the same as that of those who seek the key to the horrors of Nazism in the psychological profiles of Hitler and other figures. Here, Hannah Arendt was right in her thesis on the "banality of Evil": if we take Adolf Eichmann as a psychological entity, a person, we discover nothing monstrous about him - his psychological profile gives us no clue to the atrocities he executed. In the same way it is totally misleading to investigate the oscillations of the commander as Spielberg does. So why not turn to comedy, which at least accepts in advance its failure to render the horror of the holocaust?

Paradoxical as it may sound, the rise of the holocaust comedy is correlative to the elevation of the holocaust itself into the metaphysical, diabolical Evil - the ultimate traumatic point at which the objectifying of historical knowledge breaks down and even witnesses concede words fail them. The holocaust cannot be explained, visualised, represented or transmitted, since it marks the black hole, the implosion of the (narrative) universe. Any attempt to locate it in its context, to politicise it, equals an anti-Semitic negation of its uniqueness.

However, this very depoliticisation of the holocaust, its elevation into the properly sublime Evil, can also be a cynically manipulative political strategy to legitimise certain practices and disqualify others. It perfectly fits today's culture of victimisation: is the holocaust not the supreme proof that to be human is to be a victim not an active political agent and that proclaiming oneself a victim is the sine qua non of speaking with authority? Such a stance casts the Third World violations of human rights for which western states were fully co-responsible (such as the Rwanda genocide) as minor in comparison with the absolute evil of the holocaust and taints as anti-Semitic anyone who questions Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, making the Palestinians pay for our, European, sins. And it casts a shadow on every radical political project by reinforcing the Denkverbot (prohibition to think) against the radical political imagination: "Are you aware that what you propose ultimately leads to the holocaust?"

Protective fictions

No wonder, then, that few, including even the most ardent keepers of the flame of absolute evil, were offended by Life Is Beautiful, the story of an Italian Jewish father who adopts the desperate strategy of shielding his young son from the trauma of a concentration camp by presenting what goes on as a staged competition in which you must stick to the rules (eat as little as possible, etc.) and those who win will at the end see an American tank arriving. The miracle of the film is that the father succeeds in maintaining the appearance to the end: even when he's led away to be shot he winks at his son and goose-steps in a comically exaggerated manner, as if playing a game with the guard.

Perhaps the key scene occurs when the child gets tired of the game and announces he wants to leave. Unperturbed, the father agrees, but then with feigned indifference mentions how glad their fellow competitors will be if they quit now, when they're in the lead. In short, he deftly manipulates the dimension of the other's (the boy's peers') desire, so when, close to the doors, he says, "OK, let's go, I can't wait for you all day!", the son changes his mind and asks to stay. Of course, the tension is created by the fact that we, the spectators, know the father's offer is pure bluff, a false choice: if they were to step out, the son (who is hiding in the barracks) would immediately be killed. Perhaps therein lies the fundamental function of a protective father: under the guise of offering a false choice, to make his son freely opt for the inevitable through the competitive evocation of the other's desire.

Are not all fathers doing something similar, if in less dramatic circumstances? Benigni's protective father ultimately accomplishes the work of 'symbolic castration': he effectively separates the son from his mother, introduces him to the dialectical identification with the other's desire, and thus accustoms him to the cruel reality of life outside the family. The fantasmatic protective shield is the benevolent fiction that allows the son to come to terms with reality: the father doesn't insulate his son from reality, he just provides the symbolic fiction that renders it bearable.

Life Is Beautiful makes clear how so-called human dignity relies on the urgent need to maintain a minimum of protective appearance. Is it not that, if 'becoming mature' means we no longer need such a protective appearance, we in a sense never become 'mature': we just displace the shield of protective appearance on to a different level? In an age obsessed with unmasking false appearances (from the traditional leftist critique of the ideological hypocrisy of morality to talk shows where individuals disclose publicly their innermost secrets and fantasies), it is touching to see such a paean to the benevolent power of appearance. But what remains problematic is the allegoric relationship between the film's narrative and the way it addresses the spectator: just as the father constructs a protective fiction to render the reality of the concentration camp bearable for his son, is not Benigni too treating the audience as children to be protected from the horror of the holocaust through a sentimental and funny fiction?

It is instructive to compare Life Is Beautiful with Thomas Vinterberg's Festen (1998), in which the father, far from protecting his children from trauma, is the trauma's cause. On the one hand we have a father who weaves a protective web of fictions for his son and on the other one whose core we arrive at through the dismantling of protective fictions: at this point we see him as he is, the brutal jouisseur, rapist of his children. Festen tells us a lot about how today false memory syndrome has resurrected the spectral figure of the Freudian Urvater, sexually possessing everyone around him - and it tells us a lot precisely because of its artificial character. A closer look at Festen shows us there's something fake about all this pseudo-Freudian stuff about 'demystifying bourgeois paternal authority': today such a demystification functions more as postmodern pastiche, even as a nostalgic depiction of the good old days when it was still possible to experience such traumas.

Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments points in the same direction: what everyone assumed to be authentic, blurred memories of a young child imprisoned in Majdanek turned out to be a literary fiction. Usually we generate fantasies as a shield to protect us from unbearable trauma; here the ultimate traumatic experience, the holocaust, is fantasised as a shield. Similarly in false memory syndrome the figure of the rapist father is not the traumatic reality which emerges when the false appearance of social respectability is torn away, but a fantasy formation, a protective shield - against what? Against the loss of enjoyment. Such a father is the ultimate guarantee that there is somewhere full, unconstrained enjoyment. The true horror is not the rapist Urvater but the benevolent, 'maternal' father - the truly psychosis-generating experience for the child would be to have a father like Benigni who erases all traces of the excessive surplus-enjoyment. It is as a desperate defence against this father that one fantasises about the Urvater.

Survival logic

It's interesting to compare Benigni's film to earlier holocaust comedies: Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940), Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942), Lina Wertmüller's Seven Beauties/Pasqualino Settebellezze (1975). Limits are obviously respected in all these films: while one could, say, imagine the so-called Muslims (the living dead of the camps, prisoners who had lost their will to live and dragged themselves around passively reacting to their surroundings) as the object of laughter generated by their mindless movements, it's clear such laughter would be ethically unacceptable. Furthermore, at a certain point laughter or satire is suspended and we are confronted with a 'serious' message: in The Great Dictator in the pathetic final speech of the poor Jewish barber who finds himself occupying the place of Hynkel (Hitler); in Life Is Beautiful in the last scene where we see the child embracing his mother on a green meadow while his voiceover thanks his father for his survival.

Seven Beauties has no such moment of redemption (had Wertmüller made Life Is Beautiful, the film would probably have ended with a soldier in the American tank mistaking the child for the lone Nazi sniper and shooting him dead). The hero Pasqualino (Giancarlo Giannini), a caricatured dynamic Italian obsessed with family honour, comes to the conclusion that if he is to survive the concentration camp he must seduce the plump and ruthless woman commander, and we witness his attempts to offer her his body, an erection a prerequisite for success. After the seduction he is elevated into a Kapo, and in order to save the men under his command he must kill six of them including his best friend Francesco. Comedy thus segues into the undignified horror of survival logic and laughter is pushed beyond 'good taste', slipping into scenes of burning corpses, of people committing suicide by jumping into a pool of human excrement. We are no longer dealing with a small good man who maintains his dignity in horrific conditions but with a victim-turned-oppressor who loses his moral innocence.

What makes Seven Beauties so disturbing is that when the film's comic rendering of the resourceful persistence of life reaches its limit, we get not the usual pathetic dignity but the nausea of degenerate mortality. Though both comedy and tragedy deal with immortality, the forms of immortality they present are incompatible. In the tragic predicament the hero sacrifices his terrestrial life to the cause, but his very defeat is his triumph, conferring him with eternal commemoration. Comedy, by contrast, presents the indestructibility of vulgar, opportunistic, terrestrial life. This is why the ultimate comic scene is false death: the solemn funeral during which the allegedly dead awakens and asks what the hell is going on. Towards the end of John Ford's The Quiet Man, an old man is on his deathbed. Suddenly the dignified calm is disturbed by the sound of a violent brawl: the fist fight the whole village has been waiting for is finally taking place outside. The dying man forgets he is involved in his own dying, gets up, runs out of the house in his nightshirt and joins the enthusiastic spectators. Imagine, along the same lines, an Antigone who, after delivering her solemn response to Creon, asks to withdraw and, once outside, squats and urinates.

It is this comic aspect of survival that such films as Life Is Beautiful and Seven Beauties rely on. No matter what the difficulties, the hero finds a way out. However, if the comic dimension stands for the triumph of life at its most opportunistically resourceful, we should remember that the life which survives is not simple biological life but a fantasmatic ethereal life unencumbered by the constraints of biological reality. The privileged space in which we experience this indestructible life is perversion - reduced to its bare bones, perversion is a defence against the threat of mortality as well as the contingent imposition of sexual difference: in the perverse universe a human being can survive any catastrophe, adult sexuality is reduced to a childish game, one is not forced to die or to choose one of the two sexes. Recall a standard Tom and Jerry cartoon: Jerry is run over by a heavy truck, dynamite explodes in his mouth, he is cut to slices, yet in the next scene he's back again with no traces of the previous disasters. The stuff of comedy is precisely this repetitive, resourceful popping-up of life - no matter how dark the predicament, we can be sure the small fellow will find a way out.

Empty of spirit

However, in the concentration-camp universe at its most horrifying, it is no longer possible to sustain this gap between reality and the ethereal domain of infinite life. The Muslims are so destitute they can no longer be considered 'tragic': they have abandoned the minimum of dignity, reduced to the shell of a person, emptied of the spark of spirit. If we try to present them as tragic, the effect will be comic, as when one tries to read tragic dignity into a meaningless, idiotic persistence. On the other hand, though the Muslims act in a way that is usually the stuff of comedy (automatic, mindless repetitive gestures, impassive pursuit of food, etc.), if we try to present them as comic characters, the effect will be tragic, as when the spectacle of someone cruelly baiting a helpless victim (say, putting obstacles in the path of a blind person to watch him or her stumble) generates sympathy for the victim's tragic predicament instead of laughter. Did not something along these lines happen with the rituals of humiliation in the camps themselves, from the notorious inscription above the entrance to Auschwitz - "Arbeit macht frei!" - to the band music that accompanied prisoners to work or to the gas chambers? It is only through such cruel humour that the tragic sentiment can be generated in the concentration-camp universe.

The Muslim is the zero point at which the opposition between tragedy and comedy, between the sublime and the ridiculous, between dignity and derision is suspended, the point at which one pole directly passes into its opposite. If we try to present their predicament as tragic, the result is comic; if we treat them as comic, tragedy emerges. We enter the domain that is outside, or rather beneath, the elementary opposition of the dignified hierarchical structure of authority and its carnivalesque reverse, of the original and its parody, its mocking repetition. Can one imagine a film rendering this?

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012