Leffler '04 gives campus a new look at the Holocaust

by John Kim | 5/20/04 5:00am

Television legend Carol Burnett once observed that "comedy is tragedy plus time." This weekend, Rebecca Leffler '04 will host a film festival based on her thesis that explores this theme of finding humor in pain. Titled "To Laugh . . . or Not to Laugh," the three-day festival will screen five films that, while distinct in tone, all demonstrate how French cinema has recently straddled that thin line between happiness and sorrow in dealing with the emotional aftermath of the Holocaust.

Leffler, a member of The Dartmouth staff, admits that the title of the festival may mislead people into expecting a "typical" comedy film festival, when the truth is that some of the films will probably be devoid of audience laughter. "These are not particularly feel-good movies," she clarifies, "but they are important and well-crafted movies that need to be seen. A lot of the humor may make the audience uncomfortable, but this discomfort is supposed to parallel the discomfort one would feel from memories of the Holocaust itself."

The French perspective of the Holocaust is particularly interesting because the Vichy government's collaboration with the Nazis during World War II resulted in a wartime experience far different from that of Americans. Having gone through stages of both denial and guilt over their role in the war, France now finds itself in a stage of "healing," and "To Laugh or Not to Laugh" explores how humor is being used to expedite this process.

The festival begins Friday at 3 p.m. with Michelle Deville's "Almost Peaceful," a drama set in 1946 Paris that focuses on Jewish concentration camp survivors trying to move on as best as they can after their horrific ordeal. A comic yet poignant film, "Almost Peaceful" is an examination of how comedy helps these characters cope with their sadness.

There will be a post-film discussion led by Andr Colombat, author of "The Holocaust in French Film."

On Saturday, at 11 a.m., the festival resumes with "Amen," a film by "Z" director Costa-Gavras that criticizes the papacy for its actions (or lack thereof) during the Holocaust. It is as inflammatory as anything found in Gavras' previous oeuvre, but Leffler insists that humor is present, only in a more ironic and bitter form meant to provoke anger rather than to elicit laughter.

At 3 p.m., there will be a screening of Bertrand Tavernier's "Safe-Conduct," which follows two filmmakers as they struggle to keep alive the French film industry during the Nazi occupation. According to Leffler, "The film raises important questions about the nature of art, namely whether art can continue amidst such tragedy and whether or not such aesthetic representation deserves to continue in such a tumultuous period of history."

The final Saturday film, shown at 7 p.m., is Radu Mihaileanu's "Train of Life," the only straightforward comedy in the entire festival. Focusing on a Jewish community that organizes a fake deportation train in order to escape the Nazis, the film has an almost absurd tone that may remind moviegoers of "Life is Beautiful." In fact, the comparison is not so misguided. Roberto Benigni actually turned down the starring role in this film only to work on his own Holocaust comedy immediately afterwards, and while Leffler refrains from explicitly accusing Benigni of idea theft, she does note the highly coincidental timing.

The festival concludes on Sunday with the premiere of Danner Anker's documentary "Imaginary Witness," which examines how the American film industry has evolved in its portrayal of the Holocaust.

There are those who might accuse these films of trivializing the horrific events of Holocaust for their own benefit, especially "Train of Life," but Leffler disagrees with this interpretation. She argues, "Films like 'Schindler's List' profess to be accurate, but for all their attention to detail, they can never recreate what actually happened during that time. Yet, because the French films do not even pretend to be true, the films become all the more real as a result."

Leffler credits professors Lynn Higgins and John Rassias for their support throughout the entire process. "They taught me how to conduct sophisticated research while still encouraging my passion for French film, and I am grateful to them for nurturing my interest in what could have been perceived as an overly esoteric topic."

For Leffler, this festival became a means through which she could merge her many different areas of interest towards one goal: giving back to the Dartmouth community by presenting them with films that they would otherwise never be able to see.

"I'm looking forward to the opportunity to both foster awareness for Holocaust education and share my love of French culture to the Dartmouth community."

She adds optimistically, "It was months of hard work, but it was something I absolutely loved doing, and I only hope that I can inspire the same kind of passion in others as well."