How a Jewish Historian Helped Benigni Fend Off Holocaust Denial Charges in ‘Life Is Beautiful'

Twenty years after the film’s U.S. release, Marcello Pezzetti recounts how he convinced the Italian filmmaker to make the ending darker and says he thinks Italians still have a lot to learn from the movie

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Holocaust consultant Marcello Pezzetti, left, on the set of “Life is Beautiful” with director Roberto Benigni and Holocaust survivor Shlomo Venezia, who visited Auschwitz with Pezzetti 57 times.
Holocaust consultant Marcello Pezzetti, left, on the set of “Life is Beautiful” with director Roberto Benigni and Holocaust survivor Shlomo Venezia, who visited Auschwitz with Pezzetti 57 times.Credit: Courtesy of Marcello Pezzetti
Davide Lerner.
Davide Lerner
Davide Lerner.
Davide Lerner

In October 1998, Italian filmmaker Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful” was released in the United States. It was a runaway success at both the box office and end-of-year awards ceremonies, winning three Oscars – including best actor for Benigni himself.

But 20 years on, the film’s historical consultant, Jewish-Italian Marcello Pezzetti, tells Haaretz that Benigni originally wanted a different ending for the film, one that risked alienating the Jewish community and corroborating accusations of Holocaust denial.

The film begins in fascist Italy in 1939, and goes on to chronicle how an Italian-Jewish father, Guido (Benigni), convinces his young son, Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini), that their incarceration in a German concentration camp is all an elaborate game. This “game” sees the inmates competing to score points, with the first to 1,000 points winning the star prize of a tank.

>> Life Is Beautiful: A clown’s guide to the gas chambers

It was a storyline that sparked fierce debate, both in Italy and in the United States, where it was released by Miramax Films. It has also proved strangely hypnotic for Israelis, with at least two academic books published on the film in Hebrew (the most recent in 2016).

“The film was an instant success in Italy, but a campaign of criticism was launched – notably by the Italian newspaper Il Foglio,” recalls Paolo Mereghetti, veteran film critic for Italian daily Corriere della Sera. “In keeping with Theodor Adorno’s idea that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz, critics argued that telling a story of love and hope against the backdrop of the biggest tragedy in modern history trivialized and ultimately denied the essence of the Holocaust.”

“Personally, I think Benigni’s movie was not offensive,” says Italian critic Mereghetti. “Treating topics like the Shoah as taboo risks hindering our comprehension. It is necessary to study it and compare it to other historical events.”

Italian critics compared Benigni’s movie to another Holocaust movie released the same year – Radu Mihaileanu’s tragicomic “Train of Life,” where Eastern European Jews organize their own deportation train to flee the Nazis. [SPOILERS] However, in the last seconds of that film, a character reveals it was all just a prisoner’s dream. In comparison, “Life is Beautiful” ends with young Giosué being driven out of the death camp on a tank and being reunited with his (non-Jewish) mother, Dora (played by Benigni’s real-life wife, Nicoletta Braschi), after his father has been executed by the Nazis.

Benigni, a natural clown but also a man of surprising intellect, was often able to assuage the film’s detractors with his ineffable charm. Yet he would have faced an overwhelming tsunami of criticism if he had kept the ending he originally scripted.

But Pezzetti, a history consultant from Milan’s Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation, convinced him to make a vital change – one that ultimately helped the film secure the approval of Italy’s Jewish community and its Holocaust survivors.

Benigni’s trump card

Pezzetti, who has traveled to Auschwitz more than 250 times and interviewed hundreds of Holocaust survivors over the years, was Benigni’s trump card in the movie’s representation of the Holocaust.

He was originally hired to ensure that the film looked authentic, specifically the death camp scenes and costumes. However, he says his most important intervention came before filming began. “After sitting a full-immersion Holocaust history course with me, Benigni told me he now had to keep his distance while he drafted the screenplay,” recalls Pezzetti, speaking to Haaretz via phone from his Rome home.

“However, when he came back, he presented a screenplay [co-written with Vincenzo Cerami] with an unrepentantly happy ending. None of the protagonists – Guido, his son Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini) and his wife (Dora) – were murdered in the death camp.”

Pezzetti says his response was uncompromising: “I told him, ‘Either you have one of the protagonists die in the camp, or I cannot represent Italy’s Jewish institutions and Milan’s Center of Documentation in supporting this movie – because never after decades focusing on the subject have I found a Holocaust story with a happy ending.’”

It wasn’t easy to convince a comedian who had built his career on making people laugh that it was the right move to end the film on a tragic note.

“I found myself in the awkward position of reproaching him, advising him to choose between himself and the child,” recounts Pezzetti. “It made no sense having the mother die in the story, since she was not Jewish. In the end Benigni gave in, and accepted having his character die instead of the child.

“It was a necessary twist for an otherwise embarrassingly happy ending. Even a fairy tale about the Holocaust must contain an element of death – otherwise you just couldn’t call it a movie about the Shoah.”

“It was a hard pill for the producers to swallow,” Pezzetti adds, since they feared it “would damage Benigni’s standing as an Italian comic celebrity. But I told him the Holocaust did not differentiate between the stars and the common people.”

Ultimately, the two men agreed on a compromise: “I would have preferred for the son to die, because that’s what the Holocaust is,” says Pezzetti. “It would have been more consistent, but at the end of the day it was Benigni who had the final word on the screenplay – it wasn’t me writing it. Benigni wanted to sacrifice himself for the child, but in the Holocaust there was no such thing: Persecutors decided a person’s fate, not the victims,” he adds.

Benigni’s spokeswoman, Cristiana Caimmi, told Haaretz that Pezzetti’s claims about lobbying for a different ending are “all true,” adding that Pezzetti played a crucial role in the creation of “Life is Beautiful.”

Survivors on set

Pezzetti had other objections to Benigni’s first draft, he says, noting that crucial aspects of life at the death camps were missing. For instance, Pezzetti convinced Benigni to show the selection between women, men and the elderly at the entrance to the camp. Additional efforts even included bringing Holocaust survivors to the set to offer last-minute advice. One of them, Rubino Romeo Salmonì, reportedly inspired Benigni with his Auschwitz memoir “In the End, I Beat Hitler,” where he used black humor to poke fun at his tragedy.

Pezzetti admits that, ultimately, Benigni did not represent the death camp realistically, and nor did he intend to – “as epitomized by the self-consciously ‘elegant’ shot of the pile of bodies in the death camp, which is visibly a drawing.” Still, he believes that critics who slammed the movie for trivializing the Shoah overlooked some aspects that were actually helpful in creating a better understanding of the Holocaust.

“At the time, and still now, Italy and Italians fail to be aware of the nation’s direct role in the Holocaust, and tend to see it as something foreign that only concerned Germans and Jews,” Pezzetti says. “Because Italy dropped out of the alliance with Germany on September 8, 1943 [when the country’s surrender was officially announced], Italians came to see themselves as victims of the Germans – and after the war they granted amnesties to the persecutors of the Jews.”

After September 1943, with the Allies invading Italy from the south and the Mussolini regime collapsing, Germany invaded its former ally and established the puppet state of the Italian Social Republic, which played a major role in the deportations of over 7,000 Jews. In total, about 7,172 Italian Jews died in the Holocaust, a figure that climbs to 8,879 when including the territory island of Rhodes, which was under Italian rule at the time.

“While Italy did not have its own death camps, it did have anti-Semitic laws and performed the early phases of the Holocaust by arresting and deporting Jews,” says Pezzetti. “By telling the story of a fully integrated Italian-Jewish man who has to endure the Racial Laws under fascism, showing visually the signs ‘Entrance forbidden to Jews and dogs’ outside shops, Benigni helped raise awareness of the Italian role in the Holocaust,” he adds.

Italian Jews, he notes, were more assimilated than those in other European states: “Speaking to Polish and Italian survivors, I noticed that the former see themselves as first Jews and then Poles, while Italians always put their sense of belonging to their country ahead of religious identity. You can see this in the movie: Guido is a fully integrated Italian.”

In the first part of the movie, where Guido is busy courting his wife in the Italian town of Arezzo, the portents of fascism are visible – although, faithful to the movie’s comic nature, Benigni presents them playfully: He tells his son that signs forbidding entrance to Jews and dogs are just a shopkeeper’s extravaganza. “Everyone does what he feels: I know a hardware store that bans entry to Spaniards and horses,” Benigni’s character jokes.

For Pezzetti, though, Benigni’s finest moment is when he pretends to be a ministerial envoy visiting a local elementary school in order to meet his future wife, a teacher, and finds himself forced to stage a presentation on why the Italian “race” is superior to all others. Benigni jumps on a table to describe himself as the prototype of a perfect subject from the Italian race, while analyzing the shape of his ear in front of an audience of attentive kids. According to Pezzetti, who was on set, Benigni improvised the entire scene.

The historian notes that this year marks the 80th anniversary of the promulgation of Italy’s Racial Laws, which legalized racial discrimination against Jews – including the expulsion of Jewish students and teachers from public schools, the banning of Jews from holding positions in public administration, and the confiscation of business and real-estate assets above a certain value or number of employees.

“Twenty years ago when the movie was released, the existence of such laws in Italy was not even taught in schools,” recounts Pezzetti. “I remember urging teachers to educate children about them as part of my work as a Jewish historian and researcher, but they had no idea what I was talking about.”

That ignorance still persists, says Pezzetti, citing an incident in September in the northeastern port city of Trieste, which is where Mussolini first announced the Racial Laws. The city’s right-wing mayor, Roberto Dipiazza, blocked an exhibition on the 80th anniversary of the laws enactment, organized by a local school, claiming the poster advertising the event was "too strong." The poster featured the frontpage of the local newspaper from 1938 announcing the expulsion of Jewish students and teachers from public schools. "Do we still need to bring up these things?," the mayor asked in a statement.

Pezzetti stresses that “with the populists in government and an atmosphere of growing resentment against migrants” in Italy, “the lessons of ‘Life is Beautiful’ are all the more topical 20 years on.”

He mentions a scene in “Life is Beautiful” where an Italian fascist speaks of a math exercise where German elementary school kids are asked to calculate how much their government has to spend to support the sick and disabled. In the movie, the woman who is telling the story of the school exercise is surprised not at its content but at its level of difficulty for primary school kids, which Benigni uses to show the lack of human sensitivity at the time. That scene referenced the Aktion T4 involuntary euthanasia program, and was based on the exact text of a Nazi school exercise. It “is reminiscent of debates on how much the state spends or saves in catering for migrants in need in today’s Italy,” says Pezzetti. “The attitude toward them is evocative of how Ostjuden [Eastern Jews] and Roma people were seen then.”

Rather than condemning Benigni for doing his job as a comedian, Pezzetti believes Italians should have made greater use of the movie to learn more about themselves. “Germans playing the Nazis in Benigni’s movie kept apologizing, because they know that’s part of their own history. Italians are not self-aware in the same way,” he says.

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