Nitehawk Cinema is presenting two new comedies this week: one about a suspected serial killer, the other about the Holocaust. But taboo isn’t the running theme of “Representation,” the theater’s mini-program (though there’s a lot of that); its purpose is to highlight up-and-coming female filmmakers in independent cinema. Nitehawk plans to make this an ongoing series, aiming for at least one screening a month, and to expand it to their second location, in Park Slope, when it opens in early 2018.
The two films are Women Who Kill, directed by Ingrid Jungermann (playing Sept. 16 and 17), and The Last Laugh, directed by Ferne Pearlstein (playing Sept. 18, 23, and 24). Rounding out this installment of “Representation” is Jennifer Reeder’s Signature Move (playing Sept. 30 and Oct. 1), about a Pakistani woman named Zaynab, an amateur wrestler who falls for Alma, the daughter of a luchadora. It’s a breezy, familial indie comic drama that examines self-discovery and self-acceptance, especially against the rigid traditional norms of Zaynab’s Muslim upbringing. Signature Move (written by Fawzia Mirza and Lisa Donato and executive-produced by Michael Shannon) will be getting its New York theatrical run at Nitehawk after its premiere at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre.
Women Who Kill also highlights queer women as leads, and takes filmgoers’ true-crime obsession to a sexualized extreme. In her debut directorial feature, Jungermann (who also wrote the film) stars as Morgan, one half of a podcasting duo that interviews women murderers and discusses who the hottest female serial killers are. The other half is Morgan’s ex-girlfriend Jean (Ann Carr), who suspects Morgan’s new love interest, the secretive, blunt-banged Simone (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night star Sheila Vand) is a murderer herself. Morgan falls into a rabbit hole of paranoia while questioning her own commitment issues.
Signature Move and Women Who Kill both have their flaws (the former ends too neatly, the latter falls apart). But there’s much to champion in both — the very title of the series for one. And if I continue to watch films selected for “Representation,” as I plan to, I won’t love everything I see. It’s the inclusion that counts — the inclusion of stories about, or made by, women, minorities, and LGBTQ folks. It’s not every day you see onscreen a Mexican woman bridge the cultural gap between herself and her Pakistani girlfriend’s mother by showing her telenovelas.
That leaves us with The Last Laugh, the standout of the three. Pearlstein’s documentary, with its star-studded cast of talking heads, dissects comedy’s biggest taboo: Holocaust jokes. (I initially cringed at that premise, but I urge you to give it a chance.) Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Rob Reiner, and Gilbert Gottfried are some of the famous comedians interviewed, as are Auschwitz survivors (notably 92-year-old Renee Firestone), who offer firsthand perspective. No two participants come to the same conclusion regarding the ethics of comedy mined from such horror, but that only makes The Last Laugh a more fascinating discussion. This doc doesn’t exist to tell you what’s okay to laugh at and what’s not.
Silverman, for one, says that real-life events become too dark without jokes, whereas Brooks says he “personally…cannot go there” regarding jokes about concentration camps. Early on, Firestone advocates humor, because it’s “the only thing the Nazis cannot understand,” but later disapproves of Silverman’s envelope-pushing stand-up and is especially disgusted with Joan Rivers’s infamous 2013 comment about Heidi Klum: “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into ovens.” Not even the most audacious comedian is quick to defend that line.
Many also point out the distinct difference between Holocaust jokes and Nazi jokes; the latter (which, yes, include Hitler jokes) are much more digestible because they ridicule low-hanging fruit. The prominence of Nazis has spiked in the news since Pearlstein filmed her documentary, and especially since its initial release in March, so it now stirs a heightened sense of “is this too soon?” It’s a question that these comedians return to again and again, often using 9-11 as context. (Though Gottfried asks, “Why wait?”)
Not many waited, at least not too long. Pearlstein digs up a wide range of archives, from The Producers to Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi bit to Curb Your Enthusiasm’s “Survivor” episode, a roast of David Hasselhoff, and Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning Life Is Beautiful (which Mel Brooks calls “the worst movie ever made”). She also explores the nuances of when a Holocaust joke gets cracked by a Jew versus a non-Jew.
The Last Laugh is sure to make you laugh nervously throughout, or maybe even let out a gasp or two. Pearlstein is wary about the sensitivity of the topic at hand, though, and delicately balances the controversial nature of it with personal and historical context. It never trivializes the experience of survivors, especially as Firestone recalls the most painful moments, like finding out her sister had been killed after being cruelly experimented on. But it also highlights her healing process, as she enlightens others about the experience and attends gatherings for survivors. And yes, humor can be a big part of that process, too.
Begins September 16, Nitehawk.