Hollywood and the Holocaust

An initial viewing of “Life is Beautiful” (1998) may prompt an attitude that the film makes mockery of the Holocaust through the telling of a father-son tragicomedy. This is a naïve response. Life is Beautiful is neither a mockery nor a tragicomedy. It is a fable and as is the case with most fables, far more complex than is suggested by a one-sentence summation of its plot.

A fable is a story that is told to teach a moral lesson, often with animals as characters. In the case of Life is Beautiful, the moral lesson is comes from a quote by Leon Trotsky, who knowing he was about to be killed by Stalin’s assassins, saw his wife in a garden and wrote that in spite of everything, “life is beautiful.” And here, Robert Benigni, the film’s co-writer, director and lead actor, acts out the role of Guido with such comedic prowess that he more closely represents one of Aesop’s animals than he does an actual human being.

Generally, “Life is Beautiful” described it as a two-part film. But a thoughtful analysis of this film should include a consideration that the precepts of a Westerner are largely influenced by an education on the Holocaust told through a German, Polish or American lens that may have a tendency to frame the events and settings of this film as pre-Holocaust and Holocaust. Benigni’s lens is Italian and it is Jewish. Understanding that his perspective may be different than our own, one can acknowledge a pattern that like stanzas in a song is repeated three times in the film.

driving car downhill riding bike downhill riding train into camp
arrival of king arrival of soldiers arrival of Jews
vandalized horse horse drawn carriage kitten
engagement party birthday party dinner party
escape on horse capture escape on tank

A close reading of the text invites the question, “Why is this pattern repeated?” Benigni’s response is that some things change, some things stay the same. If anger begets anger then beauty begets beauty. Because father begets son, the Guido character does all in his power to encourage hope and happiness in the life of his son, Giosué. The Biblical equivalent of Giosué is Joshua, the leader who brought the Israelites into the Promised Land after the death of Moses. Benigni’s choosing of this name is not accidental and suggests that it’s said that love, family and imagination conquer all, Benigni truly means ALL – working at menial jobs, parents who force dirty children to take baths, hate crimes, racism, Fascism, Nazism, concentration camps, the Holocaust, a parent sacrificing his life so his son might live – the whole megillah.

Benigni’s father was prisoner in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp 1943-1945 and his stories are the basis for Life is Beautiful. As Guido uses his comedy to protect his son’s life, Benigni uses his to honor his father and his positive influence on his personal life. Benigni also uses the film to pay tribute to influencers on his professional life, namely Jewish comics the Marx Brothers and Danny Kaye as well as Charlie Chaplin, whose portrayal of a Nazi dictator in the satire “The Great Dictator “(1940) is nodded to by having Guido wear the same number on his prison camp uniform, as did Chaplin.

To criticize Benigni for his use of humor in connection with the Holocaust is shortsighted. “Life is Beautiful” is a story told with tremendous imagination and creativity. At the beginning of the film he states that the film is a fable and like a good essayist, he supports his position by telling his story in a highly stylized manner.  Everything – the slapstick comedy, flat lighting, theatrical staging, Hollywood’s Golden Era mimicked sets – is animated to support the film’s allegorical nature. Setting a portion of the film in a concentration camp is simply a reflection of Benigni’s belief that it’s the last place one might expect to find beauty. It’s unfortunate that so many people have been offended by “Life is Beautiful”. Perhaps if they better understood the film’s premise, life would be more beautiful for us all.

“La Vita è Bella” (1997), released in the United States as “Life is Beautiful” (1998)
“Film Art: An Introduction” by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson
Chicago Sun-Times film review by Roger Ebert
San Francisco Chronicle film review by Mick LaSalle
San Francisco Examiner film review by Walter Addiego
Slate film review by David Edelstein
Political Film Society film review

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