Life is Beautiful: Comedy and the Holocaust

David Denby’s review of Life is Beautiful from The New Yorker has two main points. First, if done right, comedy can be a tool to present the Holocaust. Secondly, Life is Beautiful does not succeed in this endeavor. For Denby, the film presents the audience with “Holocaust denial.” Given my reaction to Night and Fog, it would seem natural for me to agree with him. In my reaction to Night and Fog, I spoke about confronting the Holocaust even though understanding it is difficult (if not impossible). I spoke about likewise, confronting the perpetrators and remaining vigilant to the possibility of another tragic event like this arising. The Holocaust was a very serious event, from the manifestation of it, to the crime itself, and to the everlasting effects of it. Confronting the Holocaust then, arguably, is a serious matter. That is true. The only way to confront the Holocaust and remain vigilant is to take the Holocaust seriously and not deny it or distort it (not in the conspiratorial sense).

However, with that being said, Life is Beautiful deserves mention alongside Holocaust Films like Night and Fog or Schindler’s List, even though it is a comedy. This is because Life is Beautiful has something to say. Yes, admittedly, there are many Holocaust films. The Academy routinely praises Holocaust films and so forth. Certainly, while it is an odd observation of society, people have grown weary of Holocaust material. In other words, there is only so much disturbing footage and tragedy one could sit through before you need some relief from it. For instance, there is a reason horror films often have comedy. It is a device to relieve the tension of the film and give the audience a break. In that sense, Life is Beautiful works for me. I find it funny, joyful and sad all at the same time.

Nevertheless, I do find it a very silly film and completely unrealistic, as Denby mentioned. I disagree with Denby even so because the film being unrealistic works, as that is the entire gimmick of the film. The film is portraying a father trying to hide the atrocities of the Holocaust from his son. The viewing audience does live vicariously through the innocence of the child in the film. There is not necessarily an act of denial of the Holocaust, but a yearning to return to a time before the awareness of the Holocaust. In other words, one cannot go back to a time where the Holocaust does not exist in the human consciousness. Once people become aware of that reality – that human beings are capable of such depravity – such a reality is a harsh one. As I said, one can confront that seriously and there is a place for that. For the most part, I would say that taking such a reality seriously is the best way to go forth. However, comedy also has its place, even amongst Holocaust films.

As far as the father sacrificing himself at the end is concerned, I did not find that a flaw of the film. Admittedly, I found it heavy-handed: the father sacrificing himself as the last act to ensure his son remains innocent from the knowledge of the Holocaust, but at the same time, there is just something – pardon the pun – beautiful about it. Anyone else in that situation would surely do the same thing; they would want to do whatever it took to shelter a child from such a thing. Now if it were perhaps an older child, then that explaining of the reality is imperative. The parents’ imperative in that sense is that the child is beyond the age of innocence and can reason beyond the father’s manifestations of a “game.”

Yes, I do smile when the American tank rolls up and the child’s face lights up in utter amazement and euphoria. Even though the scene is very hokey and the acting of the American soldier is atrociously bad; there is again, just something beautiful about it. Unlike Denby, I do not view this film as Holocaust denial, but as a way for people to pull something tangible out of the Holocaust. That is, comedy is a good medium to attempt to make sense of something inexplicable.

3 thoughts

  1. I agree. The film isn’t a denial of the holocaust at all. It’s about love and parenting. As a mother of 3 young children, it breaks my heart to find them afraid of things… mainly things that they just don’t understand. In this movie, the boy’s father absolutely loved his son, and really tried his best to divert his view of what was going on to a more positive one. I’m sure everyone during that time in that area felt the tension (I actually know they did, as I’ve read many many non-fiction WWII books from all sides.) Would it have been better for the child to live in constant fear, and not laugh or smile about anything!? He was a child! I think the movie demonstrates a level of selflessness that I definitely am far from. Even though it is just a movie, and the storyline itself isn’t real, there is a lot of good that can be taken from it. Especially as a parent! The movie is definitely not a denial of that horrible, HORRIBLE event but in my opinion rather, a demonstration of true love and perception.


    1. Well said, Laura. I keep saying it, but there’s something beautiful about the father’s noticeably desperate attempts to maintain the “game” so that the son isn’t made aware of what’s really going on. Because you know, despite what front the father puts on for the son and how brave he seems, he has to be terrified underneath for his son and perhaps himself. I just can’t imagine…


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