TELEVISION / Laughing all the way to the brink

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DID ANYONE tell jokes in Auschwitz? The answer must surely be yes, however unlikely it sounds and however queasily the thought mixes with our inherited reverence for the place. It's not even beyond the bounds of possibility that someone made a bitter, defiant joke at the door of the gas chambers, the sort of joke which set Genghis Cohn (BBC 2) on its way.

Antony Sher played the title role, a luckless Jewish comedian who is hounded from venue to venue by the Nazis and, judging by the quality of his act, by angry night-club owners. He ends up in Dachau, where he dies for the last time in his career, led to the edge of a trench in the middle of a wood. Just before the guns fire he turns and yells 'Kish mir in tokus'. That isn't the joke as such. The joke is that the Germans don't understand what it means and wander around the camp for days asking for a translation (it's Yiddish for 'Kiss my arse'). When Genghis returns 19 years later to haunt the man who shot him, he is still chuckling about it.

By now Otto Schatz (excellently played by Robert Lindsay) is commandant of police for a small German town, his Nazi past buried for reasons of expediency rather than conscience. At first Genghis is merely a pest, popping up everywhere with a morbid grin. Soon, though, you see that this isn't merely a dream of revenge - the criminal allowed no peace - but a dream of resurrection too.

Schatz is obliged to eat chopped liver sandwiches (prepared to Cohn's fussy instructions); he finds a smattering of Yiddish insinuating itself into his vocabulary and is forced to say the Kaddish for the dead in the local synagogue. This isn't a merely cosmetic transformation either - Schatz experiences at first hand the injustice and contempt he visited on his own victims - he becomes a scapegoat. By the end of the film he is humbly running a kosher snack-bar and Cohn has started on his next conversion. Not the least of the little shocks the film delivered is the sudden thought of how long it would take to replace all those who were murdered.

Which leads to the more pertinent question - can you make a comedy out of the Holocaust? There has already been some debate about the propriety of Genghis Cohn but, having watched it, I'm not sure the question is resolved either way. It wasn't offensive but then it wasn't very funny either, at least not in way that would really test the issue. I don't mean this to sound dismissive - if the film was a failure, it was a thoughtful and honourable one, held back by its own scruples.

So the comedy of cross-purposes and double entendre was always too dark and too calculated to make you laugh out loud. 'You've been involved in murders before, haven't you, Schatz?' asks one of his superiors, puzzled by his failure to solve the string of sex-killings. 'Yes, but not like this, not cold-blooded,' replies the distracted policeman, momentarily forgetting his life in wartime. Just as the thriller sub-plot doesn't really thrill (it's there to make a dark point about our appetite for fictional murder and our neglect of the real thing), the jokes don't make you laugh - they're too busy doing a serious job.

In the same way Elijah Moshinsky's direction, competent during scenes of slapstick, produced something remarkable at darker moments. The film ended with Cohn walking through a modern Bavarian town in his camp uniform - a startling image of a real haunting, of elderly ladies confronted with a ghost from the past.

But the most memorable scene came much earlier. When Cohn was shot, the images were cut into a crescendo of numb realisation: first the shuffle along a woodland path that leads nowhere, then the soldiers in the clearing, then, out of the corner of the camera's eye, that ditch and a workman spreading quicklime, a killing detail. Sher's blank face conveyed disbelief grappling with knowledge - 'You must be joking,' he might have thought, but they weren't. It's right that you can't then get this out of your mind but it's difficult to laugh while it's there.