The absurdities and atrocities of the Nazi and Fascist regimes that dominated Europe in the late 30s and 40s, and the world-engulfing conflict they spawned provide rich fodder for movie makers and other artists.
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Following a tradition of laughing because it is less painful than weeping, Life is Beautiful (1998) addresses with whimsical humor as well as clear-sighted pathos the incarceration and execution of millions, for no reason other than their difference from the majority (whether because they were Jewish, or Romany, or disabled, or have a different gender preference).
The humorous approach seems to help to offset the horror, and permit it to be examined in full without causing the viewer to turn away in disgust. In the case of the movie Life is Beautiful, the protagonist’s use of humor to shield his son from the worst psychological wounds of the Nazi death machinery allows the film maker to set the scene, to reveal character, and show truly horrifying situations without alienating the audience, and as such it is both effective and appropriate.
While a number of directors have endeavored to capture the events, the mood, and impact of this era in dramatically serious works such as Casablanca (1942), several movies treat the subject humorously, including Catch 22 (1953), and The Great Dictator (1940), joined more recently by Life is Beautiful. Life is Beautiful uses humor to show, subtly, the absurdity of a world in which this evil could blossom and flourish.
Humor is also used to reveal the protagonist’s pluckiness and resilience and his response to the absurdity of his surroundings. Humor also conveys the message of the horror of the concentration camp system and the essential idiocy of the Nazi regime, while never sugarcoating its evil. The humor is also a reminder that life goes on, and thus, by its persistence, asserts the beauty claimed in the movie’s title.
Humor in Life is Beautiful provides a way for the director to subtly paint a backdrop that is oppressive and frightening but not overtly war-torn or totalitarian…yet. For example, in the opening sequences, the protagonist’s vehicle runs away with no brakes, a fitting image of Europe on the edge of totalitarianism and conflict. Guido finds himself acclaimed by a flag-waving crowd, misled into thinking that he is their expected leader because his clownish efforts to disperse them and avoid running them over inadvertently resemble the Fascist salute.
The actual leader is a tiny fellow with massive mustaches, medals, and a plus-sized consort, whose official car just happened to share the road just happened to be behind Guido in his official car. The theme of the threatening shadow of such bombastic dictatorial power is emphasized by the ludicrous posters covering the walls of the town. Later on, the movie hints at the absurd environment in which the protagonist is operating when Dora’s school has scheduled a visiting lecturer on racial superiority.
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He responds with an appropriately absurd rant about his own body parts. This use of humor, like the previous examples, foreshadows the gathering storm of racism that threatens the protagonist’s family and so many others. It is thus entirely appropriate in helping to set the stage for the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Humor in this film also reveals a great deal about the character of the protagonist, and his resistance and resilience in the face of the nightmare around him and his son. For example the protagonist gives a hint of the way that he deals with the world when he calls Dora ‘princess’, and claims to be working for a ‘prince’. This silliness shows that this fellow is quite willing to use fantasy to model a world he would prefer. Later on, he portrays the camp as a game with the prize being a real operating tank.
This nonsense allows the child to tolerate the camp without collapsing in tears. It also reveals that the protagonist will do or say almost anything to offset the impact on his beloved son of the abyss that they are facing in the camp. In the process, Guido’s humor points up the hideousness of the concentration camp system.
His humorous antics with the radio transmitter in the ‘Funkraum’ contrast sharply with his real feelings of despair and pain from the unaccustomed work of carrying anvils (a fitting symbol of the absurdity of the camp system). The humor actually demonstrates that the character is not naturally a clown or buffoon.
This silliness is all for his son, all to help him survive the crushing evil of the camp. The contrast between his loving character and this evil makes a powerful statement both about parental love, and the sins that were perpetrated in the name of Nazism.
Finally, the humor allows the director to show things that are really too horrible to bear. Later in the movie, for example Dora’s desperate search for her loved ones’ clothes, after the viewer has seen the inside of the gas chambers, is too painful to show without the leavening of Guido’s fabrications for Joshua. Guido’s mistranslation of the guard’s bellowed instructions as rules of the ‘game’, and his recounting of ring-around-the-rosy, which are all funny scenes, also point up the foul nature of the Nazi establishment.
The only reason Guido needs to promulgate his fantasies with Joshua is that the reality is so ghastly. Even as his own situation deteriorates, the protagonist never stops trying to keep up his son’s spirits. Even on his way to death, he manages to parody his captors’ goose-stepping to keep his son’s attention focused on the ‘game’. The casual brutality that kills Guido would be very hard for viewers to see if it were not for his heroic satire up the very end.
However, because of movie’s humor, the audience can tolerate this inside peek at the daily life of that hell on earth. In fact, Guido’s effort to create some sort of order, and even, as the movie’s title suggests, some sort of beauty, out of the chaos that they are experiencing is his expression of love. It is the movie’s triumph, largely due to Guido’s humor (his way of showing love), that the viewer can accept that he succeeds at making life beautiful in spite of suffering, humiliation, and loss.
Life is Beautiful focuses truthfully on some of the most heinous atrocities perpetrated on fellow humans. This is offset throughout the movie by humor. Humor sets the scene, spotlights what is lovable about the hero, and softens the shock of the true gruesomeness of the era just enough so the audience can keep watching. The film uses humor to allow the audience to share in the protagonist’s experience without being overwhelmed.
As such, each of these functions helps to preserve and recall the Holocaust in a way that is truthful, and effective. Without the movie’s humor and hopeful message that love persists, that life can go on, and even display the very beauty that the title asserts (in spite of the evil actions of fellow humans), viewers might simply shut down mentally, and the world might begin to forget the Holocaust entirely.