Life is Beautiful: A Holocaust Comedy?

Sermon given February 5, 1999, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Almost every Sunday, Rabbi Stahl and I visit several of our Religious School classrooms, and attempt to respond to the probing questions of our inquisitive students. We rabbis prefer that they interrogate us on Jewish subjects, related to classroom curriculum. Often, though, the students seem to be less intrigued by Judaism, and much more eager to ask personal questions about the rabbis, who are not so interesting.

Recently, a first grader asked: “If you were not a rabbi, what would you want to do?” With grade one, I looked to turn this question into a fruitful discussion. Tonight, though, I shall share my fantasy from my rabbinic school years in Los Angeles: my life as a film and restaurant critic. I would sleep until noon, go out for fabulous lunch, write in the early afternoon, then go to the gym, followed by the movies and an exquisite dinner, all paid for by my employer.

Now, more than ten years after leaving L.A., I find that I can be both a rabbi and a film critic. Last month, I offered a pulpit review of The Prince of Egypt. Saving Private Ryan was featured in my Yom Kippur sermon. I even managed to weave Titanic into my sermon on Rosh Hashanah. Tonight, I shall discuss the Italian tragi-comedy about the Holocaust, Life is Beautiful. Nevertheless, I must not really be a film critic, since I did not submit any of my movie tickets for reimbursement as a Temple expense, or even for a tax deduction. And as for the restaurants, my reviews are always ready. Ask me later.

When somebody first suggested that I see Life is Beautiful, I was skeptical. What in the world is a comedy about the Holocaust? The very idea sounded offensive. The film’s accolades, though, multiplied, until I felt compelled to go see for myself. Parenthetically, the experience of going to the cinema that night was a tragi-comedy in itself: all of the theater’s restrooms were out of order! Nevertheless, by the time we emerged from the bowels of Crossroads that evening, Toni and I were adding our voices to the chorus praising Life is Beautiful. Still, more thought was required before I realized what was so compelling about this most unusual film.

        Life is Beautiful begins as a comedy, almost a farce. The hero is a charming buffoon, a Jerry Lewis-type character. He is seriously in love with a particular woman he calls “princess,” and hilarious in his contempt for the local fascists. Otherwise, there is nothing serious about him. We know that he is Jewish, but only because his uncle is the victim of anti-semitic activity. Our hero makes a joke of this fascist hooliganism, emblematic of his treatment of every other aspect of his life. Nothing really bothers him. Everything is funny. Life is beautiful.

Our chief concern throughout the first half of the movie is, will he get the girl? Our hero’s “princess” is engaged to be married to the film’s fascist foil. Obviously, she is not Jewish, but that isn’t an issue. This first act is romantic comedy, with only the slightest foreshadowing of the tragedy to come. Having been told that the movie is about the Holocaust, the viewer may begin to wonder where the Nazis are, and whether the war will ever begin.

Then, all of a sudden, the film artistically but suddenly leaps forward a decade. Soon, we are transported to the cattle cars and concentration camp. Our hero is now a husband, a father, and a concentration camp inmate. His basic nature, though, has not changed. Romantic comedy remains his essential device. He broadcasts a message of love to his wife over the camp’s loudspeaker. In order to protect his son, both from death and from the unspeakable truth, he turns concentration camp life into a game. He convinces his child that the Nazis are nothing more than organizers of a fantastic competition. The winner will go home with a tank of his very own. Paradoxically, one of the funniest scenes ever filmed takes place inside a death camp barracks. As a brutal Nazi shouts instructions at the prisoners, our hero “translates” into Italian. Our interpreter, though, doesn’t know a word of the German from which he purports to translate. He proclaims the rules of his imaginary tank competition, as though they were coming from the mouth of the Nazi himself.

The goal is survival, for himself, and more importantly, for his wife and son. Our hero instills hope in his loved ones, even in the face of unparalleled hopelessness. He brings laughter to the kingdom of tears and vitality to the domain of death. Life is precarious. Life is living hell. Somehow, though, life is still beautiful.

Several questions nagged at me as I left the theater that night, and not just, “How could they operate that entire cinema with no working bathrooms?”

More to the point, I was saddened that our hero’s life is in no way enriched by Judaism. Here is a man who faces the Nazi executioners for no reason save that he is Jewish, yet he exhibits no appreciation whatsoever for the beauty, the depth, or the meaning of our faith. He doesn’t even seem to have a Jewish identity. There is no reason to believe that Judaism will be kept alive by the family’s survivors after the Holocaust. What are we to think of a film about Jewish victims of the Holocaust that in no way treats Judaism, or even Jewishness, as a serious subject?

In the end, I have concluded that this problem is mine, or perhaps ours, but not the film’s. The reality is that many Jewish Holocaust victims did not have a meaningful relationship to Judaism. Just as millions of Orthodox Jews went to the gas chambers together with pious Reform Jews, so, too, were secular Jews dispatched to the crematoria along with individuals who had never been Jewish, but who had one Jewish grandparent. This aspect of the film, therefore, reflects a truth about the Holocaust, however regrettable, and reinforces a lesson so dear to many of us: May we ever enrich our Jewish faith, so that Judaism will never be solely synonymous with anti-semitism, degradation and death, for us or for future generations, ever again.

A second problem was pointed out to me just this afternoon, by our Educator-in-Residence, Joel Lurie Grishaver, who is observing Shabbat tonight with Deena Bloomstone and our Religious School faculty at the home of Mary and Harry Levy. Joel observes that a key feature of the Jewish experience in the concentration camps was that our people bonded tightly together, creating close communities, even among Jews of diverse backgrounds. Life is Beautiful, though, is concerned with the fates of the members of only one family, who form no identifiable links to their fellow Jews in the camp. In one scene, we become aware that all the children have disappeared, having met their terrible fate in the Nazi gas chambers. Even then, the sentiment conveyed by the film is of profound relief: the child we care about it is still alive.

Emblematic of the film itself, the main character, however charming, is self-centered. He does not reach out to help the Jews around him. Arguably, he exposes them to peril through his often outrageous behavior. If this were a true story, and not a work of fiction, surely we would refrain from sitting in judgment of a Holocaust victim. We would be unlikely to criticize him for putting the survival of his family above all else. And yet, Joel Grishaver has an excellent point, when he insists that the film is neither as uplifting, nor as representative of the Jewish Holocaust experience, as it might have been, had the hero connected meaningfully to others in the camp.

Nevertheless, in the end, I was tremendously moved that night, as Toni and I left the theater, in search of restrooms. I had laughed a great deal. Paradoxically, though, this movie provided, for me, at least, the most devastating sense of loss I have ever experienced while viewing a film about the Holocaust. How could a comedy do that?

        Life is Beautiful has been criticized for its failure to convey the enormity of the Holocaust. Indeed, the movie does not focus on the large-scale death and destruction wrought by the Nazis. Instead, it focuses on one man, and on one family. However imperfect the man, we truly care about him as we are drawn deeper and deeper into the film. His life has inestimable value to him, and its worth has a profound effect on us. Therefore, by the time our hero faces the nadir of Nazi inhumanity, we are moved to the depths of grief. This one life carries, for the viewer, the weight of all the deaths of the Holocaust. The Talmud teaches us that a person who murders one other human has committed a crime equivalent to destroying the whole world. Life is Beautiful illustrates the Talmud’s point brutally and magnificently. The movie could not achieve that goal without the laughter, constantly reminding us that life is worth living.

In this week’s Torah portion, parashat Yitro, Moses, the greatest leader in Jewish history, learns a critically important lesson from his father-in-law Jethro, who is a non-Jew. Similarly, the writer, director and lead actor of Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni, is not Jewish. Perhaps that fact explains, to a large degree, the movie’s weaknesses in conveying some significant Jewish issues related to the Holocaust. At the same time, though, like Moses learning from Jethro, we Jews are taught something particular by Benigni’s Holocaust comedy: In addition to the unique lessons that Jews take and learn and teach from the Holocaust, that terrible event in human history conveys a message that is universal.

The moral of Benigni’s story is as critical for Jews as for all humanity. Hope and laughter can bring light, even into the darkest corner; life, even to the domain of death. Each human life is precious and should be preserved. Life is beautiful.